A daily bulletin of news & opinion

21 November 2012

Greetings: they can be difficult things to get right. I can’t have been the only person to view the front-page photos of Barack Obama’s recent meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma with a mix of fascination and fully fledged horror. Not at the politics of the occasion, you understand, but at the awkwardness of the moment of introduction as the US president appeared to land an unwelcome smacker on the cheek of the celebrated human-rights campaigner.

Hillary Clinton fared better with an enthusiastic embrace for Suu Kyi – but it was the kiss from the main man that unsettled me. It’s a tough balance to strike: being diplomatic and respecting local tradition while simultaneously trying to symbolise shared ties and look amiable rather than cold and aloof. It had all started so brightly for the US president as he struck a nifty and, to my untrained eye, rather authentic-looking Burmese pose – palms clasped, head bowed – upon arrival. Obama looked every inch the international statesman with a smattering of rock-star cool thrown into the mix for good measure. But then he lunged in for the smooch and the wheels came off.

So what’s the answer? And is there an appropriate rubric to govern how to meet and greet on the international stage?

Us hapless Brits are constantly baffled by the nuances of these local customs when abroad, even relatively close to home. Surrounded by laidback European contemporaries at a Parisian reception, for example, a Britsh mitt proffered in pursuit of a handshake from a new acquaintance is frowned upon. “No, no, these are my friends, you are not meeting a bank manager!” your host might exclaim, directing you to kiss instead. Acting upon this useful insight, one might be forgiven for nipping in for a peck on the cheek when introduced to the next guest. Another quiet word from the host at the next interlude: “You really shouldn’t do that to the chief gendarme, it is far too… personal.”

Such faux pas leave me desperately wondering: how are you supposed to walk this tightrope of potential embarrassment? I feel it is only right, therefore, that I compile a quick checklist of dos and don’ts for the discriminating international traveller:

  1. Never, under any circumstances, launch into a frat-house chest bump when introduced to a statesman or visiting dignitary. The risks of this are obvious, especially if the aforementioned big shot is elderly or infirm.

  2. Always check local custom ahead of gambling on an Obama-style kiss on the cheek. Congratulating myself on my new-found European élan after two well-executed kisses with a Polish acquaintance, I rapidly undid the good work by nodding rather than switching back for the customary third kiss, therefore headbutting my new – and quickly ex – friend.

  3. This is really my secret weapon: just stick to a handshake and make sure you get it right. An easy grip and no eye contact in China; with a little bow in Japan; firmly in Russia; light but long-lasting in Latin America; frequent and familiar in Europe.

It really is as easy as that. Perhaps there is one thing the leader of the free world can learn from me after all.


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