When the afternoon program broke up, I approached a business leader I hadn’t seen in a while to say hello. As I extended my hand in greeting, he took it, and at the same time leaned in to plant a kiss on my cheek.
I didn’t say that, of course, but wanted to because his gesture was as unwanted as it was unexpected.
I was reminded of the encounter when the Web lit up briefly last month over a blog post by a guy anxious to know the rules of the workplace hug. If he shakes hands with a woman in his company on their first meeting, is he obliged, he wanted to know, to hug her the next time?
While the query left me wondering whether “business casual” had gone too far, I was happy to see that the bloggers who took up his question unanimously recommended he stick to a handshake.
That’s a relief. I’ve been hit by hugs and cheek plants a few times in my career, and they irritate me as much as a bad handshake does — you know, the kind reserved for fragile women who might be injured by a firm clasp.
Angela McNerney, president of Tech Valley Connect, said she, too, saw the hug-vs.-handshake discussion. Handshakes are one of the business etiquette topics covered by her program, which helps relocating foreign nationals adjust to working and living in the Capital Region.
“Our program … really gets into the nuts and bolts of greetings and business protocol,” she said, from eye contact and personal space to what is “assumed” in U.S. culture.
But in today’s global economy, it’s a two-way street in which American workers also need to be aware of other cultures.
With Saudis, McNerney noted by way of example, “Introductions and greetings are accompanied by extensive compliments as well as handshakes using the right hand — never the left; it is considered ‘unclean.’ Saudi women generally do not shake hands with men. Saudi businessmen may be reluctant to shake the hand of a foreign woman.”
The exchange of business cards “is an essential step when meeting someone from China for the first time,” she added. “You should receive the card with two hands, showing proper respect and read the card before placing it in an upper pocket — never in a back pocket!”
But the cheek plant? Etiquette mavens from Emily Post to Miss Manners frown on it.
In her “Miss Manners’ Guide for the Turn of the Millennium,” Judith Martin calls the social kiss a “debasement of both the dignified American greeting of the handshake and the intimacy of the kiss.”
“The cheek, as it were, of this being done by strangers and even those one meets in a nonsocial capacity, such as the restaurateur, borders on the insulting,” she writes with typical sarcasm. “It presumes that a lady is grateful for any attention at all that simulates the romantic.”
One recent edition of the 1920s classic “Emily Post’s Etiquette” offers fairly simple advice for thwarting a cheek plant: “hold out your hand quickly when you meet and use the handclasp to hold [him or her] off. She or he may try anyway, but hold your ground.”
I may try the bob-and-weave instead. Or perhaps I’ll just let that “Yuk!” slip out.
Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.