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The little differences: 8. The kissing question

By Martin Pütter

For locals and expats in Basel alike there is only one certainty when it comes to men and women greeting each other: there seem to be no clear cut rules.

The US comedian and actress Janeane Garofalo is spot on: “To me, there is no greater act of courage than being the one who kisses first.” And courage is required once members of different cultural backgrounds face the ritual of kissing each other when meeting or saying good-bye. Actually, you could say that “kissing” is a misnomer in this case, as cheek is pressed onto cheek, and the lips, although forming a kissing mouth, are hitting nothing but air (hence the term “air kissing”). A few expats in Basel and the surrounding area find this even more awkward an issue than shaking hands, which had been the first topic of The Basel Journal’s observations of little differences between locals and expats.

“I first had to get used to it that friends and close acquaintances give each other kisses on the cheek when meeting or saying good-bye”, explains Zoë Jeffery. She had not been used to that back home  in England. And to add to the confusion: “How many is it? One? Two? Three?“ Now both Brits and US-Americans in particular seem to be having difficulties with body contacts. Hazel Salvage seems to confirm this, at least as far as she is concerned: “I’m not a touchy-feely person”, says the young Englishwoman who works in Basel for the Swiss branch of a globally operating logistics corporation.

This aversion against body contacts is a bit surprising; after all, two widely popular contact sports were invented in England (rugby) and in the USA (American Football). However, even a Swiss educational publisher writes: “The English do not like being touched. Even close colleagues do not shake hands every day. (…) And in the USA, too, they prefer to keep a bigger physical distance than in Europe. Greeting each other with a handshake only happens rarely.” No wonder expats living in the Basel area are bewildered by receiving kisses from their Swiss, German or French friends.

And even expats who take to it like a duck to water may face awkward moments. For example, how many pecks on the cheek does a man give a woman, or receive from her? With which cheek do you start? And why does someone only give one when previously it had been three? To answer the first question: it is generally the woman who decides whether she wants this kind of bodily contact. As most people are right-handed it seems logical you start with right cheek to right cheek – but this is not set in stone. And “it is three kisses here in Basel”, says Gaby Müller, who works both as an actress and in the hospitality business. “But it used to be two only, and you can see that with older people. When I met my grand-mother I greeted her only with two kisses”, she adds.

“Back home in the UK it’s one kiss among girls, and one kiss with my friends”, says Jenny Maxwell, who works as a teacher in Basel. She, like Zoë, had to get used to three kisses here in Basel. But both Jenny Maxwell and Gaby Müller agree that the number of kisses can go down. “With close friends it is just one kiss, or a kiss and a hug”, both say.

So what seems to be without clear-cut rules is actually quite set – but not in stone. The Basel Journal suggests: just let either the woman or the older person decide whether to peck on the cheek or not. And follow this basic rule for Switzerland: when doing business, just shake hands!

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