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To hug or not to hug: the awkwardness of the Icelandic greeting (or how I accidentally ended up kissing a stranger on the ear).

Hugs

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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  1. I like this guide 🙂 It’s even quite confusing in England, and I’ve lived here my whole life! It can depend which part of the country you live in – we’re pretty friendly up in the north, but some places down south can be more formal and less friendly for first time meetings. But then again, I have met friends of friends for the first time and they’ve been ‘huggers’ with an additional kiss on the cheek. Especially the guys (who are usually just handshake types). It’s always amusing. To be honest, I’m not really a hugger unless someone is like that with me. And I’m with you on the firm handshake, no limp ones here thanks! 😀

  2. I live in the Middle East and there are of course those culturally specific ways to greet people. Sometimes it’s a handshake (which is not that great right now, as I’ve had a fractured bone in my hand and it has not completely healed yet so those nice and firm handshakes feel pretty painful), sometimes it’s three kisses (one on the other cheek, two on the other one), sometimes it’s a hug or combination of all of the above. Or nothing at all. Quite confusing.
    Men greet other men like this, and women do the same. I’m never quite sure if one kiss is enough, but so far no one has complained about a “rude foreigner”. Some men don’t greet unknown women, that’s why if you are in an elevator with an unknown man it can get quite awkward if they don’t feel comfortable sharing a space with a woman. There are definitely no greetings there at all then- just a wish that the elevator would travel faster and not stop on every floor.

  3. CAREFUL! The French don’t kiss three times – it depends on the region. In Paris you only kiss twice, and will be left hanging if you go for a third. And unlike what many foreigners and esp. Americans think,

    1. Not everyone kisses everyone. In formal situations (ie at work), people shake hands (men and women). In informal situations, women kiss and most men shake hands although sometimes some very good friends will kiss. Nobody kisses strangers or people they don’t know unless introduced by a very close friend.
    2.you’re not actually supposed to “kiss” the person’s cheek. Just vaguely press your cheek against theirs quickly while making a brief “kissy” sound with your lips.

    There. As for Iceland, yeah. The secret is to go for a vague handshake-hug that can potentially transform into kissing to avoid awkwardness.

  4. I realised that foreigners in Switzerland are also confused often. But, as in most countries, it depends on a) the region and b) the situation.
    In the German-speaking part where I’m from it’s like this: In a formal situation (work) or if you meet someone for the first time (informal party, etc.) it’s a nice and firm handshake. In an informal situation, with people you know (good, or just recently met the first time) it’s normally three kisses (left cheek, right, left). With all your good friends it’s also three kisses (women-women and men-women). Men greet each other only by handshake, never kiss. With your very very good friends it can also be a tight hug (I’m a hugger…).
    In the French-speaking part I would say it’s more informal and more France-oriented.

    Now I know why people are confused. I’m confused myself now.

  5. 3 times kissing is common in Netherlands, and as far as I know only there. And not France! But we only kiss the females, and only to congratulate or for a return of long seen friends/family. Its by all means not the casual way to greet people, often seen as inappropiate too, if done by complete strangers! Just dont start kissing out as greeting if a Dutch doesnt innitiate it. Its a lucky guess which cheek first too. No rules apply but most people start with left as we at the same time shake hands hold it and naturally the left cheek comes forward first.

    I just know I love to hug and cuddle my Icelander, though I sense and notice it is not very custom thing to do as casual greeting. Never really hugged another Icelander either, just handshake if already that! Too bad, because I think they are great huggers haha. 😉

    1. I was told by a French person they kiss three times but later someone suggested maybe it was just in certain areas. Which, if you think about it, just adds to the confusion 🙂

  6. I’m from Egypt and a usual greeting between friends or strangers is a hug and two kisses. Often with men, if you’ve never met them before, it becomes a handshake and two kisses or a very short hug. Physical contact is almost extremely important because it can tell a person whether you like them or not and it is often considered rude not to touch them as it means that you almost severely dislike them. This is, of course, becomes really confusing when it comes to anyone from Nordic countries for me.
    How do I know if someone is uncomfortable with what I’m doing? Am I supposed to ask or will Icelanders typically say it out loud?

    1. Post comment

      Auður - I Heart Reykjavík says:

      Icelanders don’t always tell you if they’re uncomfortable with something. I think it’s at least partly because they don’t want to embarrass you. I think it’s always polite to ask people before you enter their personal space. I was very uncomfortable with people I didn’t know hugging me for a long time, for example, although I don’t mind it now. You should probably not kiss anyone you don’t know, even though it’s only on the cheek. A handshake is always safe in Iceland but you just have to feel people out for the rest.