We have increasingly moved away from meetings in a formal office environment where the Director or Manager’s PA offers you a hot drink in a tea cup to a new trend whereby meetings are routinely held in cafés or in a hotel foyer. I’ve even been part of an interview panel where applicants for a senior role were interviewed in the hustle and bustle of a hotel’s reception area. Historically, greeting others used to be a straightforward handshake, but not anymore. Greeting others has become a social minefield, judging the other person’s or persons’ expectations without appearing either overfamiliar, uptight or simply awkward.
I recently met five colleagues in person for the first time for a formal meeting, with an agenda and significant paperwork in an informal setting – a hotel lounge – having had contact with them only via email. The ‘Hello Fluster’ was triggered as the first (female) colleague greeted me by hugging me enthusiastically, which gave me a dilemma as to how I should greet the others – do I shake hands, half hug, do close to the cheek air kiss (and if so one cheek or two?) or should I simply say ‘hello’? And my dilemma increased because of the perceived bias about the gender dynamic. Do I shake hands with the men and hug the women? To add further to my fluster, I was also conscious about how the men might feel about half hugging an Asian woman and whether they would worry about overstepping cultural or even religious boundaries. What would happen if I hugged some colleagues and not others? And what if someone reached out to hug me and I had my hand outstretched for a handshake? Ultimately, will the manner of (my) greeting affect the rapport building process and ensuing discussion?
There are also other biases at play. Is a man who gives a ‘bone crusher’ of a handshake trying to establish his power? Should he be considered arrogant and disrespectful compared to someone who just grazes my hand and who might therefore considered to be ‘weak’? On one occasion, a Muslim man refused to shake hands with me because he was fasting. As a result, I felt rather uncomfortable and, further, felt that I should’ve known it was Ramadan and been more respectful of his boundaries. This ‘Hello Fluster’ affects many people to the point that they dread the greeting process when interacting with other professionals outside the formal office environment.
According to Wikipedia, greeting is an act of communication in which humans intentionally make their presence known to each other, to show attention to, and to suggest a type of cordial relationship between individuals or groups of people. There is further consideration that an effective greeting sends out signals of status and reflects an individual’s charisma and personality.
Some forms of greeting considered normal when meeting friends or family have somehow crossed into work culture, with the effect that the chaotic practice of hugs, shakes and kisses (one side or two?) triggers social anxiety in many. There are some ‘rules of thumb’, when only a handshake is acceptable with clients and colleagues and any physical contact of a hug or an air kiss would be out of place or inappropriate – say in a professional/work setting. However, in the media, fashion and entertainment industries, a kiss (or even two) is practically a requirement and declining a social kiss would be considered rude and the greeter being made to feel uncomfortable.
There are other factors, for instance it’s normal to exchange emails before a meeting and these message often end with phrases like ‘warm regards’, ‘looking forward to our meeting’, ‘have a lovely weekend’ or ‘let’s do lunch soon’. Such exchanges create a pull of intimacy and a push of anxiety of getting it wrong or causing offence when actually meeting colleagues in person.
So what IS the best way to manage the ‘Hello Fluster’? It is about emotional intelligence, observation skills and self-reflection. Being confident, warm and relaxed can give an impression of an awareness of personal space. It is also about asking yourself ‘Am I comfortable doing this?’, ‘Does this form of greeting suit the situation?’, ‘Is it appropriate?’, and ‘How do I make others comfortable?’. It’s important to be sensitive as to whether others want to be touched or kissed. If in doubt, it’s always best to start with a handshake to be on the safe side, unless the other person leans in for a hug or an air kiss. And, whatever you do, please no noises of ‘mwah, mwah’, that really is tacky!
Fundamentally, there has been a change in business culture which allows for flexibility at the risk of becoming too informal. The pressure to assimilate the finer points of changing etiquette, whilst conducting a business transaction, isn’t easy yet good manners need to prevail when interacting with other professionals and clients.
When I think about greetings across cultures/countries I feel I need to lie down as it is such a complex area. However, it has been said that, in countries where everyone gets a kiss on the cheek even between a doctor and patient, it does solve awkwardness. There is something to be said for a kiss and hug within a professional boundary as this creates a level of feel good intimacy. A colleague recently told me that she worked for a charity that gives out free hugs in shopping centres, train stations etc. A woman in her late fifties requested a free hug and afterwards, in tears, said she had not had any bodily contact with another person for over 10 months.
Finally, a sense of humour can be most useful when defusing an awkward greeting situation. In ‘The Men from The Ministry’, to test if someone was British there was the question ‘What would you do if a strange woman came up and kissed you?’ The answer ‘I would apologise at once immediately!’ demonstrated beyond any doubt whatsoever that the person was British to the core!
Managing Director, Blue Tulip Consultancy
Inspired by the famous Gandhi quote, “be the change you want to see in the world”, Snéha has developed expertise on diversity, inclusion and management/leadership development over the past 20 years. Her focus is to change and improve interactions between people within the business world. Working at an international level, Snéha has advised and worked with Board Members, CEOs, Executive Directors and Senior Managers on how to develop a strategic and operational approach to the changing stance on equality, diversity, inclusion and unconscious bias. Snéha helps identify and implement effective solutions to their organisation-related ‘diversity dilemmas’.
Snéha is Chair of ella Group 1 and continues to be enthralled by the determination and commitment of her members to their charities. Snéha also provides business coaching for Regional Directors at United Nations and other organisations.