Andrew Gormley, director of men’s wear at fashion supplier Harvest Group, says that in his business kissing is pretty prevalent. “Fashion can be a bit ‘Ab Fab’ and a lot of people are very ‘dahling, dahling’ and camp it up.” But, he adds, “You probably wouldn’t plant a smacker on the face of the fashion director of a major chain.”
These days, if you offer someone your hand at a business meeting in the US, they might refuse to shake it, according to Jacqueline Whitmore, author of Business Class: Etiquette Essentials for Success at Work. The reason is not because bad manners are the latest fashion, but because of widespread fear about the H1N1 virus.
However, assuming you’re sufficiently cool about swine flu to touch those you do business with, what is an appropriate workplace greeting? Is it a firm, businesslike handshake? An embrace? A kiss on the cheek? A kiss on both cheeks? And how does this vary with the gender of those you meet and the continent, country and industry you are in?
Mr Gormley also has experience of different greetings in different countries: “I do a lot of work in China where business interactions are very formal and respectful. But I used to work in Turkey where men put their arms round you, hold on to your hand for quite a while and kiss as a greeting.”
Meredith Hanrahan, chief marketing officer at travel company Cheapflights, takes a similar line. “In some of the more conservative Middle Eastern countries, greetings between men and women are limited to either a handshake at most, or a pat on the chest indicating respect.
“However, it can be quite common for men to greet each other by kissing on both cheeks while shaking hands, depending on how well they know each other. This is a sign of brotherly familiarity, representing the importance of family ties.”
Of course, Ms Hanrahan notes that there are exceptions: “In Lebanon, for example, mixed gender interaction involves not one or two kisses but three.”
But beneath any attempts to generalise, there are further subtle differences and conventions. In northern Europe where the handshake is presumed king, it masks untold, smaller etiquette variations.
In Germany, for example, you shake hands but you would not dream of calling someone by their first name. In Iceland, however, people only really use first names.
And needless to say, attitudes can vary within countries. “I do a lot of work down in Miami, which has a far more Latin culture that the rest of the US,” says Ms Whitmore. “Kissing business contacts on the cheek is much more normal there than it is in other parts of the country.”
And as for differences within industries, Don McGown, a London-based partner at law firm Allen & Overy, notes: “If it was a private client you knew pretty well and had been dealing with for years, you might embrace them. But that would be pretty much unheard of with commercial clients.”
UK-based etiquette expert Rachel Holland is a firm believer in the primacy of the handshake. “A handshake says, ‘I want to meet you, touch you, look at you and do business with you’,” she says.
“You should start and finish a meeting with a handshake. If you kiss at the beginning, you cross a line and it disarms you. It can make it harder to have a tough meeting.”
She adds that kissing too early can exhaust all your familiarity. “If you start with a kiss, you have nowhere to go, but with a handshake you do,” she says.
Meanwhile, says Ms Whitmore, in the pandemic-panicked US, kisses and handshakes might be rather thin on the ground this winter. But she is seeing the emergence of a new, minimal touch greeting in business circles – one that was popularised by President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle during his campaign for the presidency.
“Because of H1N1 we’re now seeing a lot of fist bumps,” she explains.
Get alerts on Work & Careers when a new story is published