When traveling to Italy, the most important thing you need to know (other than how to order coffee), is the Italian greeting. And no, I'm not talking about common Italian phrases, I'll save that for another time. I'm talking about il bacio (the kiss) or il saluto (the greeting). Who would have thought that this common gesture - the cheek kiss - could cause so much anxiety and confusion, and often lead to some awkward encounters? Both of you turn to the same side, brush noses, sometimes lips, bump heads... it happens, it's awkward, but you'll probably laugh about it later.
In America, we have many ways to greet each other, but very rarely does it involve a kiss unless it's between a spouse, significant other, or really close friend. We enjoy handshakes, hugs, and high-fives. To an Italian, these aren't very personal interactions.
Italian greetings can vary by region, cultural influences, and personal taste. So, unfortunately, I don't have the right or wrong answer for every scenario. What I hope you take away from this post is that embracing new life experiences can be rewarding, and sometimes awkward, but there's nothing more enriching than embracing a new culture and its traditions.
After careful observation and from my own experiences traveling in Italy, I've developed a guide on how to help ease you into the Italian culture of cheek kissing and avoid uncomfortable situations.
Set Your Scenario
First and foremost, il bacio is typically only done women-women, men-women, and very rarely men-men. In most cases, women dictate the number of kisses and the proximity of it. If you're a man about to greet another man, put out your hand for a handshake and let the native Italian lead you into the next step, whether it ends with that or continues on with a cheek kiss.
Also very important when setting your scenario is knowing who you are about to greet:
- Family member?
If it's a friend or family member, you've probably been through this before and have a set type of greeting. You may even have a secret handshake, go in for a hug, or actually cheek kiss. My suggestion is to always keep your own greeting consistent. My Italian friend would constantly tell me she does 3, so now I know to expect 3.
For acquaintances and strangers, it can get tricky. It's very common to cheek kiss strangers, whether it's once or three times, so don't feel awkward or uncomfortable about it. If you're unsure, I suggest to put out your hand for a handshake, and let the other person decide on the second course of action (just like in the man-man interaction).
The Do's and Don'ts of Cheek Kissing
Now that you've set your scenario for who you are about to greet, you know that in one case or another, the cheek kiss will present itself. Here are the do's and don't of the inevitable cheek kiss
- Lean left offering your right cheek, then lean right
- Don't actually kiss the other person's cheek
- The more you know the person, the more cheek kisses to expect
- 1 kiss = a quick hello or goodbye to a friend, acquaintance/stranger
- 2 kisses = friend/close friend/family member
- 3+ kisses = close friend/family member
- Embrace your inner Italian
- Women dictate proximity and number of cheek kisses. You could touch cheeks, air cheek kiss, or if she knows you well may even plant one directly on your cheek
Watch this video that summarizes what I have written:
In reality, there are no rules to the cheek kiss. Each situation and culture is different, and greetings can vary person by person. Learn from your awkward encounters, and embrace the culture of cheek kissing!