The New York Times
Week in Review has a lovely little piece
about "How to Greet in a Global Microcosm." How do you greet a person in global company when the rules aren't clear? asks the article. A handshake, a bow, an air-kiss?
Naturally, getting signals crossed with an interlocutor can lead to embarrassment. The article gives one example: "One cost of confusion is unexpected intimacy. Some Europeans, entering into a double kiss, go for the left cheek first; but others go right, resulting in accidental lip contact."
How poignant. I have also been the recipient of a misdirected European air-kiss. Only it didn't land on my lips--it landed firmly on my ear
(which, quite frankly, felt like a worse violation of my personal space than even a kiss on the lips would have). At least he (yes, it was a he) had the social grace to pretend nothing untoward had occurred.
The problem is that, in practice, it's not the handshake and the air-kiss that get confused when crossing the Atlantic. Rather, it's what the article calls a "half-hug" (what I've always personally referred to as a "girl-hug," but maybe it's become as popular these days with guys as with gals) and the air-kiss...and woe betide the awkward American like me who mistakes the acquaintance leaning in for an air-kiss for somebody leaning in for a half-hug. It's how you get a surprise smooch on the ear.
My custom has thus become letting my interlocutor lead in greeting rituals. In England I learned to recognize very quickly when someone was angling for an air-kiss and reciprocate appropriately. Since I'm American, hugs come more easily--I've always personally felt that the half-hug is the unbecoming hug equivalent of the limp handshake and try to hug with both arms, firmly...so sue me--but a niggling, perverse part of my soul is tempted to indulge in karmic retribution by air-kissing my next All-American hugger.
On the ear, of course. After all, why should I be the only one to greet globally and get it wrong?