Navigating the Confusing Culture of Greetings


This post was contributed by Ira Pöllänen. 

Studying abroad in Malta not only introduced me to its history and customs, but also to the mismatch of cultures that our group of foreign exchange students composed. It is the old cliché of studying abroad, but we truly became a little international family. What I discovered was, that I am extremely uncultured in the fine art of greetings.

The first months in study abroad are critical, everybody is nervously trying to make a good first impression, friend groups are formed and it’s all very exciting and frankly, also a bit anxiety inducing. Being a moderately awkward person, the prospect of having to perform an intricate cheek kissing routine every time I met someone was terrifying. For a backstory, in my cold northern home in Finland, a handshake is as far as we will go in physical contact with strangers and a hug is reserved for the closest of friends. Suddenly, I was surrounded with people who do that little kissy kiss thing when meeting someone, and I had never felt more out of place.

And on top of it all, I had SO MANY QUESTIONS. I mean, how do you know which side to lean in first? When is it two kisses and when is it three? Do you actually touch the other persons cheek or just kinda hover near it? Do you make a kissy noise? WHAT DO YOU DO WITH YOUR HANDS like do you also kinda hug or reach out to the person or keep your hands to yourself?

So no wonder when someone would lean in, I would noticeably stiffen up and silently panic because all these questions would be going around in my head and then the person greeting me would be asking how I am doing and I would awkwardly mumble something along the lines of fine and not even remember to ask them how they are. Smooth, I know.

As in many things in life though, I just had to give it time for me to get used to it.

Sure, there were a few times when I bumped heads with a person trying to guess which side they are going for, but eventually I learned to follow the other persons’ lead. I found joy in noticing little things that my friends did differently, like Sicilians starting on the opposite side than other Italians. To my own surprise, in the end I grew to like kissing people on the cheek upon meeting them. There’s something tender and sweet in acknowledging someone in a such a personal way, which brings you closer to people physically but also mentally. You have already shared this little moment of noticing each other, and in my experience, it’s a good place to start getting to know them better.

Meet Ira: 24-year-old Finn with a constant longing for the Mediterranean. Runs on coffee and carbs. Almost always just winging it .Keep up with Ira on IG. 

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