Kissing cheeks and other foreign things

I’m used to shaking hands with people. I am used to giving hugs to family and I’m even getting comfortable hugging friends. I’ve seen the use of kissing the cheeks as a greeting and know it exists, but I’ve never actually participated in such a custom and I didn’t expect it in Austria. This is the land of shaking hands for everything after all. Shaking hands when arriving and leaving with pretty much every encounter, unless you are giving a hug instead. Nevertheless as you might expect by the pure fact that I’m posting something about kissing cheeks as a greeting, I have experienced this phenomenon a couple times since I’ve been here.

To clarify a few things. They didn’t actually kiss my cheek. It’s more like they kiss the air next to my cheek while our heads are right next to each other. But it’s even more awkward to call it ‘kissing the air next to someone else’s cheek’.

Although it seems to occur less often than shaking hands, it does seem to be an established custom that some people do. Especially since I’m in a cross-cultural psychology class right now and essentially participating in a cross-cultural experiment this entire semester by living in Vienna, the differing customs are quite intriguing to me (if at times bewildering or a bit uncomfortable) and I’ve started wondering whether this greeting custom can be correlated with people who are more comfortable with physical closeness overall or if it’s just the one specific greeting that they are used to.

Ok, back to the story. Shaking hands, great! Hugs with people whom I know well, also great! Kisses on the cheeks by people I don’t know.. well, not as comfortable.

A typical encounter went as follows:

We both say hi and introduce ourselves and then they lean in to kiss cheeks just as I’m about to stick out my hand for a handshake. Since this is their homeland and I’m just a visitor I tend to take cues from the other person and follow their lead in things like this. So I sort of lean in the bare amount possible and tilt my head one way and then the next all the while sort of stunned that they are actually performing this particular tradition and feeling very uncomfortable for many reasons. 1) I don’t know you and you are getting way to close. 2) I don’t really know what I’m supposed to do. 3) I was totally expecting just a handshake. As soon as we’ve switched sides, I stand back upright and take a small step backwards trying not to be rude, but feeling immediate relief from the re-establishment of my personal bubble. I can’t tell if they can sense my uneasiness, but I try to make basic conversation and ask questions until I finally find a topic we have in common and forget about the introductions.

So I suppose this could be called one of those culture shock moments. An instance where I felt fairly awkward, unsure and uncomfortable and yet still tried to a certain degree to go with the flow. Encountering new customs happens on a regular basis here and I’m always learning more about the traditions and mannerisms and ways of doing things in Vienna, as they differ from in the US. So in a sense, this wasn’t so out of the ordinary, but rather quite in line with other experiences. In different varieties, I have instances like this one most days. They range from realizing that I need to speed up in the grocery store line and throw all my stuff back in the basket and bag at a table after I’ve paid to waiting for the teller to walk over to the produce section to weigh and price my bananas because I forgot that it’s not just done at the cashier to tipping a euro and a half and then being told that’s still way too much to then tipping nothing and feeling bad to getting stares in the underground because I’m having a conversation with a friend and it’s a bit above a whisper or automatically using the informal form of ‘you’ and then realizing I probably should have used the formal ‘you’ and then hesitating and taking a another multiple seconds while trying to figure out how to say the same thing using the formal ‘you’ instead.

Each time I learn something new. Each time I am a little more prepared for the next encounter. Each time I feel like I can more seamlessly interact with the Viennese. There is no way I could have learned everything by being told it ahead of time. Some things are just better learned with experience and context. It’s something I’m valuing more and more the longer I’m here, along with the realization of how complex any culture is and how long it takes to learn all the subtleties. This includes language. I’m growing a better understanding all the time and yet continually find new things that surprise or stump me.


That’s it for now. More updates and musings to come.

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