Are you familiar with that particular kind of hesitation when you meet someone and there is this first embarrassing contact: a kiss, a hug or a handshake? Whether it is at school, or whilst shopping or even when you have people for dinner, these first minutes are a little dance between a step forward to embrace them, a step backwards; maybe they prefer a handshake, but firm or gentle? Or finally is a “hi” is sufficient? Even if I like joking about this topic, I have to admit that I am lost between cultures. And I am only moving between three of them (French, German and British). What about you? What are you used to? What do you do when you live in another country?
Talking to bicultural couples (read more about my project here) I remember a Thai-British couple who describes how different the codes are in Thailand.There you certainly do not hug someone or even touch their arm whilst greeting them. “The English are much more tactile than we are,” explains Suay from Bangkok. That makes me smile, because when I explore my experience with the British it’s quite similar, but the other way round. When I greet someone, my body is instinctively moving towards this person. It’s not that the Brits run away from me, but they usually stand in front of me without betraying even a slightly perceptible movement, like a statue. Some of them know me and my tendency to warmly embrace acquaintances. Therefore they accept that this means how happy I am to see them. Perhaps in Britain this joy is more naturally expressed in the words, “So nice to see you!” – this flattered me every time, as I am not used to it. In France or Germany this could sound weird, especially when you are meeting regularly.
I have learnt now if not to brake but to slow down my instinctive movement towards the others to make them feel comfortable and take time to observe their body language. Then it’s even nicer when people run unexpectedly into my arms or face. And do you know why? “Because I love la bise in France, and I miss it here” confides a neighbour. Now tell me, how do you expect me not to be confused?
Ah and there is a PS to this greeting topic!
“Dis bonjour à la dame” is probably one of the most frequently heard question at family encounters in France. Greeting conventions are very important in the French style of upbringing (read more about this in Bébé made in France, P. Druckermann) and parents absolutely insist that their kids say “hello”. [And sometimes accept a kiss even if the child is clearly quite reluctant. But this is another topic!] Also before I arrived in Britain, I didn’t realise how important this convention of a friendly spoken “hello” is to me. I was greeting lots of kids without any normal polite response in return. I couldn’t stop myself from thinking, “How rude is that!” before reminding myself, that this is just not common here. For the Brits the essentials are “yes, please” and “no, thank you”. Good to know when you bring up children between different cultures!