Picture this: You meet someone you know at a party. Should you shake hands, open your arms for a hug, or lean in for a kiss (or two)? Does it matter if it's a friend, a co-worker, or your great-aunt? What if it's someone of the opposite sex or (gasp) a stranger?
Turns out plenty of us, including diplomat and British author Andy Scott, are mystified about the right and wrong moves.
In his new, fascinating book One Kiss or Two? The Art and Science of Saying Hello, Scott explores the origins of greetings, cultural differences, and how we can overcome our fears.
In an interview, we talked about awkwardness, the surprising French aversion to hugs, and his own appreciation of bold American intimacy.
Q: How did you become fascinated by greetings?
A: It started with the awkwardness of greetings, which can be fraught with difficulty, doubt and embarrassment.
The first moments of interaction can be challenging, and it's not just me who has issues with this, and not just the British people. Many people suffer from anxiety over how to greet each other.
It was fascinating to find about the different kinds of kisses and handshakes, about foot-rubbing and face-slapping. I thought I'd find some rules and help people in the moment of need, but that's not really possible.
Q: What did you learn about the purpose of greetings?
A: We're using these moments to test our relationships and bonds with each other. There are endless rituals.
I remember when I was in Namibia, standing at a bank, when two guys approached each other. One gave a round of applause. That's one way of showing respect and affection.
Q: What did you learn about the handshake?
A: It's about demonstrating trust. It was widely thought that it goes back to the tradition of showing that you're not bearing arms, but chimpanzees also do something similar.
Also, a kiss or a hug or even a handshake are things that mothers and children do that come from that relationship.
Q: My cat has his own peculiar way of greeting people: He meows when he enters a room as if to announce, "I am here, attention must be paid."
What can we learn from animal greetings?
A: Somethings looking at animal behavior brings our behavior into sharper focus.
[Through smell], animals can detect an awful lot about the emotional state or sex of other animals. Humans have lost some degree of that capacity, but we still unconsciously have the capacity to pick up emotional states through things like body odors, and we can even pass on pheromones by shaking hands. Researchers have shown that people are more likely to sniff their hands after shaking hands.
I'm not saying that's the origin of the handshake, but it may be an unconscious influence.
Q: How do Americans stand out when it comes to greetings as compared to the British?
A: When we're asked "How are you," we're renowned for being a bit more reserved, more likely to say "We're not bad," "Can't complain," to use understatement.
In the U.S, there's much more of a temptation to say "I'm good," "Great," or "Really good, thanks."
While you in the U.S. might see others as being on the rude side, and we might see you as being slightly over-the-top, we're both trying to be polite.
Q: What sort of cultural differences did you find in terms of hugging?
A: When I go to America, I find myself hugging my American friends, when I wouldn't even hug my brothers here.
I'll never forget the first time I arrived to live in America. A friend picked me up, we got to his house late at 2 a.m., and his dad came to the door and gave me this big hug. It was much more of a hug than my dad would have given me, and it was from this big American guy.
It was a lovely moment and stuck with me.
Q: The hug isn't a universal greeting, especially in – of all places – France. What's the deal there?
A: For the French, hugging is much more romantic, and they don't seem to hug people unless they're very close.
The French are quite particular about their greetings. They get into a mess because a different number of kisses that go on throughout the country.
Q: How should we approach greeting people from other cultures?
A: Be aware of cultural differences. But overall, we can perhaps worry too much. As long as you're open and friendly, you can be forgiven for an awful lot. And getting into a muddle in a greeting and then laughing about it can ease the tension.
Q: Do you have a favorite greeting that you came across?
A: In Cameroon, I saw two guys greeting by touching temple to temple and going side to side. It's quite a nice thing.
Q: What about having people applaud you, which sounds pretty awesome, as you saw in Namibia?
A: I did like that. It was a warm and friendly exchange.