Brunswick Review

The Dangers Of Corporate Kissing

Just when we think we have educated ourselves in those different cultural customs that once caused such confusion at international business meetings, there is a new social minefield to navigate.

Written by: Christine Graeff, Brunswick, Frankfurt

It’s corporate kissing – that moment, round the board table or in some other formal business setting, when friends, acquaintances and business partners meet cheek to cheek. Or, as often happens, not.

It is natural and elegant when done properly. Hideously embarrassing when misjudged. Everyone knows that moment of going right when the other party has anticipated left, of making contact only with an ear, of leaning into a kiss that was not only unexpected, but also unwelcome.

Because a kiss is not necessarily just a kiss. Behaving appropriately and in line with etiquette avoids personal embarrassment and conveys an important message. 

Here is your indispensable, international guide to the dos and don’ts.

An important starting point for men in all cultures is to remember that the decision to receive (a kiss) should always be the prerogative of the woman. It should never be imposed by her male opposite number, who will need to read the body language quickly to work out whether he should proceed.

The accompanying table summarizes best practice with regard to number of pecks in some of the more important territories of the world.

In France, surprising as it might seem to outsiders with preconceived notions of my countrymen, kisses are generally omitted in a professional setting unless there is a long standing and obvious personal relationship. It is frequent for men and women to kiss in more discreet circumstances but generally they avoid doing so in more public, work-related settings.

The French invented the hand kiss, a deliciously old fashioned gesture and the ultimate sign of respect of a man towards a woman. Some women (though only in a private or social setting, not a professional one) expect it as a matter of course and will present their hand horizontally and rather limply. Do not take this as an invitation for a bone crushing American handshake.

There is still debate as to whether the man should lower his head to reach for the hand (lips should never actually touch it), or raise the hand to his mouth while looking at her straight in the eye (the more flirtatious version).

Hand kissing in the English speaking world, of course, is an instant giveaway that the man is an effete foreigner.

The English often resist kissing as another unwelcome “European” import – but if forced, will reluctantly do it with a single peck. Two is considered a very continental affectation but seems to be spreading – as is the handshake that replaces the aloof nod. 

Belgians kiss three times, which is considered rather downmarket by the French.

American air kisses are also gaining airspace among British lunching ladies, though these are considered fraudulent in the rest of Europe, where a kiss has to entail the meeting of the flesh – lip to cheek or at the very least, cheek to cheek.

Scandinavians seldom kiss in work situations, but socially will often accompany it by a proper hug – especially the more Mediterranean Danes – and they’ll always do it twice.

Spaniards are especially liberal with their kisses. It is not unusual for a meeting between total strangers to start with detached formality but to end with a kiss – especially among people of the same age and rank. The same goes for the almost instantaneous familiar form of address called “tutear” (equivalent to “tu” and “du” in France and Germany). Hand kissing is also common in Spain, but mostly reserved for dowager duchesses.

More prickly (and not just because of facial hair) is the issue of male-to-male kisses. The most frequent form is the olive belt “abrazo” or “abbraccio” which was originally intended as a demonstration that men were unarmed. It is done by raising the left arm and putting it on your companion’s shoulder, or over his shoulder, and down the back while the right arm goes under his left arm and wraps around the waist. It is generally accompanied by gentle mutual backslapping. Men’s cheeks should not touch unless as a sign of close friendship or emotional encounter.

In Europe, only the French (and the Russians) find it acceptable for a man to kiss another man on the cheek as he would a woman, though in the Arab world it is commonplace. In Europe this honor should be reserved for close family or very longstanding friends (usually childhood friends or classmates).

Christine Graeff is a Partner in Brunswick's Frankfurt office. She started her career in the Corporate Finance department of Dresdner Kleinwort Benson and previously worked for Burson-Marsteller in London and Frankfurt.