If you are of a certain age and grew up in Ireland or, in fact, in any country where greeting by kissing is NOT common and reserved for very close family or friends, then you will find the Belgium custom of kissing as a bit of a minefield. Why? I hear you ask, after all you just give a quick peck on the cheek and it’s all over…..oooooo Noooooo that’s not how it works in Belgium, the day, the event, the person, the relationship, the culutral back ground (i.e. Flemish or Walloon) will all determine if, when and how many kisses you are required to give.
When I first came here and was introduced to my husband’s mother and small family unit I instinctly put out my hand to shake hands, they however, took my hand and moved in for the kiss on the cheek. So there was this sort of awkward push pull movement with the hands before I realised that I had to kiss them….even though I had NEVER met them before and did NOT have a long established relationship with them. It was at this precise moment that I learnt that in Flanders (I have to speak about Flanders as this is where I live but I believe the custom is the same in Wallonia) when you meet someone for the first time the custom is to give 3 kisses. Three kisses are also required for birthdays, anniversaries, funerals, baptisms, communions, confirmations and any BIG event in the person’s life. HOWEVER, sometimes this rule can change depending on the person you are meeting and this is when you realise that you have to watch carefully for the other person’s body movement to ascertain if you are required to give one, two or three kisses. If you thought two kisses were enough but the person you are greeting moves in for another then my advice is to just go with the flow.
As you might imagine, with such confusion over when and how many kisses to give, I have found myself in many funny situations. The funniest situation happened to me in Dublin Airport. I had been living in Belgium for a few years and so had become used to the ‘greeting by kissing’ custom, and often I woud forget, that in Ireland, a harty shake of the hand is sufficient to let the person know that you are happy to meet them. So you can imagine the surprise on some people faces when I move in for the peck on the cheek, or two or three….however, by the third I would have realised that the receiver of my affection was rather confused and not happy with my gestures of love. On one such occassion I bumped into an old friend of mine, a guy that I used to work and socialise with so our relationship was pretty good before I left Ireland, and althoug we hadn’t kept in contact I was delighted to have the opportunity to meet him unexpectedly at the airport. So I immediatley put out my hand and went in for the kiss on the cheek! Well, this was where it all got out of control. I should mention that my friend is well over 6ft tall (I’d say between 1.90m and 2.0meters) and I am only 5ft4′ (1.61meters), so my upward body movement to kiss him on the cheek should have been met with his downward body movement to receive my kiss, but as he wasn’t used to the Belgian custom of ‘greeting by kissing’ and didn’t make that downward movement, my kiss landed straight on his very long and exposed neck! I don’t know which one of us was more surprised, me, him or my husband who was standing beside us, looking at me strangely and thinking “doesn’t she know that you greet Irish people with a handshake unless THEY make the move for the peck on the cheek”. Well, as my friend and I had never shared such an intimate relationship before, that fact that it happened in public with my husband as a voyeur, left us both red-faced and embarrassed and we tried to pretend that it never happened and that there was nothing awkward about the situation. When leaving, where in Belgium, it is also custom to kiss goodbye, I just quickly turned away and said “ok bye now” and legged it as quick as I could. There and then I vowed NEVER to ‘greet by kissing’ another person unless they made the first move and after 14 years of living in Belgium I have become very adept at reading the ‘greet by kissing’ bodylanguage.
The resaon for all the confusion is that not all Belgians follow the same rules. Sometimes they will give you one kiss, and then the next time it might be two, or maybe they have also become skilled at reading the “greet by kissing” body language and so it is me that is causing the confusion. To add to all of this, many Belgian men will greet other Belgian men by kissing but then this is only customary among some Belgian men and more common I am told in Wallonia. As you can imagine when I initially arrived here and started working in Brussels to see my male colleagues greet each other in the lift with a kiss was a surprise. Last year I was reminded of it again, when my very Catholic and reserved mother and some of my Irish friends came to Belgium to help me celebrate one of my birthdays and everyone was “greeting-by-kissing” at Charleroi airport because they were in mainland Europe and it was very acceptable, and my mother, having been pecked on the cheek more times in one hour than she had been in her entire life, asked me privately on the way home in the car “what is all the kissing for? Can they not just shake hands!”
It woud indeed make life very easy if, in Belgium, we just all shook hands, but like many Belgian customs that I have come to love and adapt as my own, I like the ‘greeting by kissing’ custom. Perhaps my friends don’t, or at least don’t like greeting me, as I know many of them have ended up with a mouthful of my long curly hair, another obstacle to manoeuver when ‘greeting by kissing’, and which I promise, right now, dear friends, to pull it out of the way when next we meet. I’m just happy really that I don’t live in South Africa where the custom is to ‘greet by kissing ON THE LIPS’. What would my poor mother think of that then?