And one of the customs with the highest potential for embarrassment is the cheek kiss.
Newcomers are faced with the ‘to kiss or not to kiss’ dilemma each time they meet someone new, and unfortunately there are no hard and fast rules as in some other countries. That means there’s a strong likelihood of accidentally kissing someone on the lips, bashing noses, or otherwise marking yourself out as an awkward foreigner.
In general, Italians are more touchy-feely than their more northern neighbours, and kissing as a greeting has a long history in Italy.
The Ancient Romans are credited with spreading the kiss throughout Europe and North Africa, though they certainly didn’t invent the custom. Writings from the time discuss kissing at length and reveal the Romans had three distinct categories: a passionate kiss was a ‘savium’, a kiss to the lips with the mouth closed was a ‘basium’, while a kiss to the hand or cheek was an ‘osculum’.
At that time, kissing wasn’t as strongly linked to love as it is today, so it would be used as a mark of respect; slaves, for example, would kiss their masters.
Romans also used the biblical concept of the ‘holy kiss’ or ‘kiss of peace’, and today, priests often kiss the altar during Catholic Mass while some Catholic pilgrims kiss ancient statues such as that of St Peter in the Rome basilica, as well as the Pope’s symbolic Fisherman’s Ring. Kissing the feet is a sign of deference, so many religious people kiss that statue’s feet, and on Holy Thursday, the pope washes and kisses people’s feet.
A 16th-century painting of Saints Peter and Paul performing the kiss of peace. Public domain photo.
Understanding the long history of the kiss might give some idea as to how ingrained it is in Italian culture, but it doesn’t necessarily help you understand what to do when faced with the greeting – so here are our tips.
The general rule of the cheek kisses is to give one or two light kisses, one on each side. Your lips shouldn’t touch the other person’s cheek unless you are extremely good friends; instead, aim to lightly touch your cheek to theirs. As to which side you approach first, leaning right is usually more natural, but pick up on cues from the other person to avoid bumping heads.
When it comes to deciding when to use the kiss, cultural norms vary across the country, but the decision rests first and foremost on the context. That includes the social situation, yours and the other person’s gender, and whether or not you’ve met them before.
Photo: Jason Hargrove/Flickr
It’s an informal greeting so don’t lean in when meeting your boss for the first time, or when your waiter for the evening introduces themselves. The kiss is less common at business and networking events and usually reserved for informal social gatherings – even then, some people just prefer to keep their personal space.
The greeting is most commonly used between two women, or a woman and a man, while men will generally shake hands with each other instead. In some areas though, mostly in the southern part of the country, man-on-man cheek kissing is the norm.
Consistency is key. If you’ve kissed someone at a previous meeting, or used the kiss when you said hello to them, make sure to do it again when you next meet them or say goodbye, otherwise they may wonder what they did to offend you.
But the main thing to remember is to follow other people’s lead: if you’re in a group and everyone else is doing the kiss, feel free to do likewise, but if you’re unsure, it’s best to err on the side of caution and give it a miss. Just because you’re in Italy doesn’t mean you have to adopt every single local custom, so people are unlikely to mind if you opt for a handshake or hug instead.