For employment lawyer David Whitten, Christmas comes right around the time bartenders at holiday office parties start mixing cocktails. Every holiday, the Toronto lawyer fields calls about sloppy kisses, drifting hands and the manager who ends up with a junior colleague in his hotel room. Even this year, with icky visions of powerful men in bathrobes dancing in our heads, Mr. Whitten is betting that some bozo will decide, during the office holiday picture-taking, that it would be hilarious to squeeze a butt or tweak a breast.
"I love this topic!" he writes gleefully in response to my request for an interview about office hugs and cheek kisses, and he should: It's very good for business.
So, take it from a lawyer: Play it safe. A comforting hug can turn creepy fast. "La bise," as the French call cheek kissing, can get slimy quick.
"The handshake is the safest bet," says Mr. Whitten.
An extended hand, friendly but formal, has little slope to slip down.
Yet is it fair to ban friendly greetings that have cultural origins? If you can't hug a colleague for becoming engaged, for instance, does that make for a chilly workplace? Or have we arrived at a time when the hug-hating camp has the high ground? Pose the questions, cue the passionate response.
"I have probably 40 years of hugging in the workplace behind me," a former investment banker in Toronto explained, weighing in on the subject via e-mail. Yes, the 62-year-old conceded, "there are loads of men who are pigs." But he was raised by huggers and married into a double-cheek-kissing family, and touching, he said, is an important part of being human. "I hope we don't lose it."
A 30-year-old sales rep in Hamilton, responding to a tweet on the subject, deemed it "classless" to even disparage the two-kisses-on-the-cheek custom as anything but an innocent social practice. Yet former NDP MP Laurin Liu shared this anecdote recently with The Globe and Mail: Some men at events in her Quebec riding used the cheek kiss as a chance to lick or suck her ear.
Camille Fleury, a 27-year-old accountant in Ottawa, would be happy if she never had to endure a cheek kiss again from someone she barely knows. "But nobody asks me first," she says, recalling a childhood where she had to bump cheeks with aunts and uncles she saw only occasionally. Recently, she says, she attended an evening meeting with a male colleague; he was greeted with a handshake by a client, an older man; she had to accept la bise, even though "I was uncomfortable." She didn't want to offend, an explanation with a familiar sound to it.
On the other hand, Neetika Chopra, 25, an MBA student in Ottawa, argues that hugs and cheek kisses are acceptable at the workplace, especially if it's a person's culture, and if everyone's comfort level is respected. (People should feel comfortable enough to declare their stance, she says.) When she worked as a manager at an ophthalmology clinic, one of her bosses, who was French, would cheek-kiss every female staffer in greeting. Ms. Chopra says she saw it as a natural and friendly gesture. But when another, younger staffer adopted the practice and selectively chose his targets, she had to tell him to stop. "It was not like a 'Hi, how are you,'" she said. "It was more like, 'Hey, I am going to hit on you.'"
Even culture isn't a consistent guide. Katia Sosa, a 36-year-old business consultant in Toronto, says she grew up in Peru, where touching is common in greetings. But in Canada, she's adapted. Now, "I don't like if someone invades my space, unless I give permission."
It's all very confusing, as Eric da Silva Brisebois, a colleague of Ms. Fleury's, notes. Which side to start? How many kisses? There's no consensus, even in France, according to one online survey. Hence the risk of ending up nose-to-nose or, worse, lip-on-lip, with the senior manager you just met.
And here's another strike against la bise: As Ms. Fleury's example makes clear, it's usually not equal opportunity. On Bay Street, or in the hallways of Parliament, you don't see much man-on-man action. Even if the greeting is innocent, it's still treating women differently from men.
Dola Onajin, a Calgary architect, says that when he receives a hug from a woman he doesn't know well, he thinks, "If the table was turned, how would she feel about that? What I can't do freely with others, I don't expect people to do with me."
He restricts warm greetings to close friends and family. Clear boundaries at work make life easier, he says. At a recent going-away gathering for a colleague who was getting a new job, he noticed that the men in the group gave handshakes, uncertain that a hug was appropriate. With sexual harassment making headlines, he says, "You tend to be more cautious, because you don't know how they will interpret your action."
In a follow-up phone call with the investment banker, for instance, this question is posed: How do you know everyone you hugged was happy to receive it? There's a pause. "Well, I never got that feeling.…" And then: "That's a great question. I don't think without asking I can ever be sure … It is possible I am an asshole. I hope not. If I ever bothered anyone, it would break my heart." (He then ended the call, having decided to survey his current female staff.)
But hugging and kissing only some people – like those you know well – can also be tricky, says Julie Blais Comeau, an Ottawa etiquette expert, because it excludes other co-workers. Also, ask yourself this: In a company where a top executive hugs subordinates, would it work the same for a junior staffer to initiate hugs with managers?
However, if you insist on cheek kissing, Ms. Blais Comeau recommends starting left and then right so that both parties end heart-to-heart. And don't make actual contact with your lips – clarification that merits wider dissemination, as plenty of women (and men) can attest. To divert an incoming pucker, Ms. Blais Comeau advises taking a small step back and firmly extending your hand.
Ultimately, it's all a lot of consternation over a practice which, according to one historical account, emerged in France as a way for parents to check their children's breath for signs of illness. Ms. Blais Comeau, for the record, agrees with Mr. Whitten: Defer to handshakes. They are tidy, gender-neutral and easier to execute at a comfortable distance.
Perhaps a handshake feels formal. Yet surely there are dozens of women in the news of late who would rather their workplaces have been a little more formal – and a whole lot less touchy-feely.
But when it does turn out to be the latter, David Whitten is expecting your call.