Our society is ruled by social norms that people, for most part, try to follow. We know how to behave in certain social situations (laughing at a funeral=bad – politely nodding and actively paying attention to someone no matter how boring they are=good) and these rules help us find comfort in an otherwise chaotic world. Many questions I get through this blog are questions about whether or not people should tip in Iceland, whether you should take off your shoes before entering an Icelandic home or whether and what you should bring as a gift if you get an invitation to a local’s home. All in an attempt to avoid being rude or culturally insensitive I assume.
The answers to those questions, by the way, are “it’s up to you but not expected”, “yes” and “yes, that would be nice if you don’t know the person well and chocolate is always a safe choice”.
A constant source of bewilderment when you travel (maybe it’s just me and my Icelandic awkwardness though) is using a proper way to greet the people you meet along the way. When I lived in Spain many years ago it took me some time getting used to having to kiss everyone twice when I met them, even perfect strangers, men or women. The more time I spent in Spain though the more I started to realize why things sometimes take so long there and why Spanish dinners last into the night: they are too busy kissing each other! My friends and I would hit a bar in the city we were living in and it took us 15 minutes to kiss everyone we knew before we could even get to the bar. OK, I will admit that we were rather popular seeing that 3 out of the 4 of us were rubias (blond that is, at least by Spanish standards) and quite pretty. I was the tall troll with dark hair and therefore not as intriguing but had to partake in the rituals as a part of the posse. We actually spent so much time in that bar that someone commented once when they met me during the day how strange it was to see me in daylight.
This business with the kissing is not only time consuming but also confusing. In some countries they kiss once, in others all kissing is seen as terribly rude and then in France, just to make our lives even more complicated, they kiss three times. Where is the symmetry in that?
As perplexing as it is to figure out how many times to kiss perfect strangers in different European countries at least they have rules. You may not always get it right but you only make the mistake of being overly generous with the cheek pecking once – your red face and bruised ego make sure of that. Here in Iceland there are no rules. It’s like the wild west of mismatched greetings and you never know what’s going to happen when you approach someone new. Like that one time I kissed some poor foreigner’s ear because I read the signals wrong. I thought he was leaning in for a kiss but it was a hug and before I knew it: a smooch on the earlobe. That wasn’t embarrassing at all. Cool, calm and collected. Yup.
I’ve spent a lot of my time in this world to trying to map out this lack of order when it comes to Icelandic greetings and unfortunately my attempts have not been very fruitful. It seems to depend entirely on the person and the circles he or she travels in what is deemed appropriate. In formal situations (if that even exists, we are super informal) a handshake is the way to go. Unless you know the person outside of this formal relationship, then you might give them a light kiss on the cheek. Just once and it’s more cheek on cheek action than lips on cheeks. I often see a lot of smooching-lite (you know, like Budweiser lite) at conferences I attend.
So I guess the business part is pretty straight forward. When in doubt: shake their hands. And none of this limp handshake nonsense you see from certain nationalities. It has to be firm and convincing.
It’s the less formal situations where we arrive at befuddlement city. I even have very close friends that I’ve known most of my life where it’s always a little awkward when it comes to greeting them. Should you hug, just kiss, hug and kiss or just do that strange little hand wave like you secretly think you’re the queen of England? You don’t want to make any uncomfortable by invading their personal space.
In the end, there’s only two ways of coping with this lack of order without developing a severe case of social anxiety: You either become super good at reading people and react to whatever they deem appropriate in a swift and stealthy manner. All while avoiding social blunders at all cost of course. A social chameleon if you will that laughs off that terrifying moment when you’ve accidentally kissed someone on the mouth because you didn’t know which cheek to attack first. Or you just decide on one method of greeting people and stick to it no matter how awkward that makes the person on the receiving end feel. If you just proclaim “Sorry I’m a hugger” as you lean into the colossal personal space of a socially bumbling Icelander you’ve given them a fair warning and they know what to expect next time they see you. You will either be put into the “crazy hugger but nice” box or “avoid at all costs” box. Either way, it’s not for you to worry about anymore.
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