To kiss or not to kiss

Who would blame a businesswoman or female dignitary for counting to 10 before entering a crowded room? Or even 100. Any woman walking into a gathering of peers and associates, or worse, a roomful of strangers, knows what to expect. For on the other side of that door will be a gaggle of men programmed to pucker up the instant a member of the opposite sex enters their midst.

Rather than extend a hand of greeting, as they would when meeting another man, many men feel that the social distinction is clear: you shake hands with a man, you kiss a woman on the cheek. The inevitable onslaught – well-meaning, but an onslaught nonetheless – can’t be pleasant for women. 

Where the trend started, whether it has belatedly landed in Australia and New Zealand on a long deferred basis from old Europe, or whether a resurgence in Europe is being reflected on the other side of the world, who knows. 

My female contacts in the corporate world assure me it is a growing trend – and most don’t like it. 

Nor is it very efficient. Imagine how much shorter meetings would be without all that preliminary kissing. German chancellor Angela Merkel must be a very patient woman. Have you noticed what she has to go through when she meets a fussing flock of fellow (and I mean fellow) leaders? One can imagine the entry in her appointments diary: “11.00-11.55am Meet and greet. 11.55-12.00 Discuss world peace.” 

For the world’s most powerful woman, turning the other cheek is a matter of high necessity. 

If the world’s most powerful women cannot escape the obligatory buss on the cheek, what hope mere mortals in business? Women in business know that one of the hazards of success is being on the receiving end of the power kiss. The higher up the pecking order, the more likely the unwanted pecks. 

Business etiquette, which is generally so attentive to changing norms of behaviour in the workplace, seems to have bypassed the tricky issue of the power peck. The propriety of greeting a female associate or peer with a kiss on the cheek remains a grey area. (And don’t get me started on the hug – when did this start?) 

Whether it’s misplaced chivalry or a perverse powerplay, many men work on the assumption that a grey area is as good as a green light when it comes to zeroing in on a female colleague’s cheek. But even men prone to pecking are becoming unsure of themselves because some women do and some women don't. Befuddled with indecision these men can be seen at meetings doing the will-I-or-won't-I shuffle. They don’t know whether to pucker up or peter out into the background.  

If business etiquette leaves too much room for doubt about the polite kiss as a form of greeting, the dilemma is doubly magnified in the era of global business. 

Conducting business, let alone oneself, when different cultures come into play can be fraught with pitfalls. I well remember a media event in Hong Kong when a visiting Australian male journalist, on meeting the public relations host, a Hong Kong Chinese woman, kissed her on the cheek. With a look of wide-eyed surprise the woman could only respond with a sheepish “Oh!”. 

Better for all, however, if clear rules of engagement were established once and for all. 

I reckon, in the absence of any formal guidance, men would do well to live by this maxim: if it’s business, shake on it.

But to turn the other cheek…

Anouk De Blieck, Hong Kong-based General Manager Human Resources - International & Institutional Banking at ANZ

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The social kiss is displacing the handshake that was once the customary greeting in most social and business circles. It may be a growing Latin influence, an aping of European manners, reflect the influx of women in the workplace or just a breakdown of formality: no one seems to know.

Even so, confusion often reigns because there is no set formula for social kissing. The French, for example, kiss on both cheeks — one kiss each — although in a few regions it is the double-double kiss with two on each cheek. 

(In a more social context I have seen some parts of France kissing 4 times, each time when they see someone ...). 

The Belgians, the Dutch and even the Swiss go for the triple kiss. The Americans prefer often a hug instead. In many of the Mediterranean cultures or Latin America, even Euroasian cultures, the men kiss to show their friendship - and often the effectiveness of business relationships can be measured on this interaction. 

For me as I travel around and meet different people in an extremely international and diverse organisation, I would keep in mind my 4 C’s:

  • Country - in most countries, the firm business handshake is still the most appropriate greeting for initial meetings and business introductions. It’s important to understand where you are or where the person you are meeting is from. 
  • Culture - the corporate culture of the field in which we work will influence whether a hand shake or kiss is more appropriate. Often in a conservative field, such as banking or consulting, handshakes are the norm. 
  • Connection - how well you know the other person, and whether or not you also have a social relationship, can dictate whether or not to kiss. If you have a social relationship, you may kiss as a greeting in social situations, but keep to a handshake in business situations to avoid confusing any colleagues who may be present. 
  • Context - where you are and what you are doing will also play into the appropriateness of the kiss. 

In addition to these 4 Cs, we know every culture has its “personal space bubble” - and individuals have their own. A person's personal space (and the corresponding physical comfort zone) is highly variable and difficult to measure. 

So in the end, what’s the best practice? 

Well, in the majority of the cases follow someone else’s lead, of course! Especially if you’re being introduced by someone who lives there, simply copy what they do. 

Just don’t find yourself puckered up in mid-air…and don’t leave anyone else hanging there either. That being said, some degree of caution is always healthy as well ... in the end, it all comes back to respect (and avoid acting on generalisations as that could have some negative and embarrassing consequences). 

Remember the 4Cs.

Leanne Lazarus, ANZ Head of Business Execution

The question becomes even more complex in India where a confluence of the traditional and the modern fights for mind space in a rapidly evolving socio-economic landscape. During my three years in Bangalore the importance of navigating these differences by being sensitive and open minded to every point of view would be apparent on a day to day basis. 

While greeting a business colleague with a peck on the cheek might be unacceptable in a professional context, it would at times be perfectly fine in a social setting. Depending of course on whether the person, and equally important, the milieu was predominantly conservative or not. So today in India, where the world converges, everyone including the Indians themselves would have to make that effort to read a situation well if they don’t want their kisses to leave bruises.

Mue Bentley Fisher, ANZ Head of Communications, Pacific & Fiji 

From a Pacific perspective, the corporate greeting varies across with the corporate handshake is a pretty well-established norm. The Pacific is a conservative place with generous 'personal space' expected compared with many other cultures. 

I'd have to say a kiss would be out of place in most corporate circumstances. In quickly asking a few of my colleagues sitting around me just now what they think, they're answers have ranged from 'only when you've had a few drinks' to 'never'. 

In Fiji though, indigenous Fijians are all about greeting with a huge smile and 'Bula!' (hello/welcome), which has permeated our tourism industry and serves it well. This can be seen from time to time in the office here - but I wouldn't say it's an expectation of others who are not of indigenous Fijian decent.

Leo D'Angelo Fisher specialises in the practice and malpractice of management. In more than three decades as a business journalist he has worked for BRW, The Australian Financial Review and a range of other business magazines in Australia and Hong Kong. His sometimes acerbic observations of management and its fads has brought him a wide following. He blogs at

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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