Tales of the Awkward

by Tara Livesay on July 1, 2013



If you have ever left your birth-culture and spent any length of time in a host or second culture, you have likely come to realize that cultural norms and differences in customs can take some getting used to; a learning curve is to be expected. For some of us, the curve is less like a curve and more like… oh, I don’t know … a cliff.

Things as simple as how we greet one another can cause us to break into a cold sweat, even in a tropical environment.

Non-touchy people such as myself need to adjust accordingly to the traditions and rituals of the culture in which they hope to live, work, and build friendships.  

Because it does not appear I will be leaving anytime soon, and because of my desire to be culturally sensitive,  I have been forced to become more comfortable with the Haitian way of kissing (or bumping) cheeks upon greeting. I’d never go so far as to say that it feels natural to me, but I roll with it as best I can.

Every so often I might run into a person that does a two cheek greeting. I’m not going to lie, all that back and forth really throws me for a loop.  I’ve never quite understood the rules of engagement because sometimes people full on kiss your cheek and other times they simply touch cheek to cheek. It is sort of like a cheek high-five. I don’t know when you are supposed to do one and when you are supposed to do the other.  It is quite vexing, I know that much.

Just when I thought I had made the appropriate adjustments, I met a new group. Maybe you have met them? The three kisses crowd.

I give the side-eye to this group, because – THREE kisses? 

That just seems excessive.

Gives me vertigo.

I’ve been doing some charting and graphing and I can confirm that greetings and goodbyes take one billion times longer … but to heck with that observation, what is time anyway?  

One afternoon my teenage daughter’s boyfriend was over visiting her.  He comes from the kiss-the-cheek-crowd so I always attempt to get with the program and follow the rules.  

He was sitting down on the floor with my daughter when I leaned down to greet him.  I fully expected him to remain stationary. I didn’t know he was going to move and I completely misjudged and overshot the distance between us as I approached for my culturally appropriate greeting.  

In one terribly awkward slow-motion moment I missed his cheek, instead kissing below his cheek in the region commonly referred to as, the neck 


I wanted the earth to swallow me whole.

Embarrassed, I quickly exited the room.  For the next several hours I hoped he didn’t think I meant to kiss his neck.

Creepy mom much?

According to Wikipedia:

A kiss is a common gesture of greeting, and at times a kiss is expected. Throughout all cultures people greet one another as a sign of recognition, affection, friendship and reverence. While hand shakes, hugs, bows, nods and nose rubbing are all acceptable greetings, the most common greeting is a kiss, or kisses, on the cheek. Cheek kissing is “a ritual or social gesture to indicate friendship, perform a greeting, to confer congratulations, to comfort someone, or to show respect.”[1] Cheek kissing is most common in Europe and Latin America and has become a standard greeting in Southern Europe.

While cheek kissing is a common greeting in many cultures, each country has a unique way of kissing. In Russia, Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro the Netherlands and Egypt it is customary to “kiss three times, on alternate cheeks.”[2] Italians usually kiss twice in a greeting and in Mexico and Belgium only one kiss is necessary. In the Galapagos women kiss on the right cheek only[3] and in Oman it is not unusual for men to kiss one another on the nose after a handshake.[4] French culture accepts a number of ways to greet depending on the region. Two kisses are most common throughout all of France but in Provence three kisses are given and in Nantes four are exchanged.[5]


More than a year has passed now, and I fear that teenage boys are still walking around guarding their necks from me .

~                ~               ~

Have you had your own awkward cultural mess-up moment?   Let’s hear it. 


Tara Livesay works as a midwife apprentice in Port-au-Prince, Haiti 

blog:  livesayhaiti.com  |  twitter (sharing with her better half): @troylivesay


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About Tara Livesay

Tara and her family have lived in Haiti since 2006. She resides in Port au Prince, where she serves as a CPM (Midwife) with Heartline Ministries - Maternity Center working in the area orphan prevention, Maternal and Newborn Health. Tara is a the wife of Troy, the mother of seven children ranging in age from 27 to 9 years old and has recently become a grandmother to 3 grandsons. Tara enjoys friends, laughing, sarcasm and spending time with her family.
  • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

    Since you asked…we also do the cheek kissing thing here, or back of the hand kisses, which I have come to like and find pretty natural. Now I think hugs are awkward and doing nothing feels cold. But…we also have many variations and the more ‘bush’ someone is, the more likely you are to get an actual mouth kiss. There can be anywhere from 1-4 cheek kisses. When I was still learning, I hadn’t figured out that there is an appropriate way to move first. Now I know, you both turn left, so your right cheeks brush/kiss. BEFORE I knew that, my friend moved left and I moved right and we got a full-on juicy lip smack. And neither of us are very ‘bush.’ We laughed until we cried.

    • Tara Porter-Livesay

      back of the hand kisses? i instantly thought ” what about Cholera”!?! Mouth kisses ….I don’t think I could live in a land that required that. Brave people, you Jones’ !!!

      • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

        Definitely not required! But has happened, especially with really rural ladies.

  • Terri

    I used to full on kiss people’s cheeks in Haiti until I figured out that the cheek high-five was the proper way to do it. I’m sure everyone thought I was a freak. In fact, when I think of all the cultural norms I have violated I’m surprised they invite me back. Haitian hospitality I suppose.

    • Tara Porter-Livesay

      I hate when I am dripping sweat and my cheek high five also means giving someone a wet face.

  • dustinxpatrick

    Love this post, so funny! This is something that has NEVER gotten easier as I’ve lived/worked overseas.

  • Cracks me up! Sometimes there is cheek kissing here sometimes not…and when it is I always miss the cue for one two or three kisses.

  • Marilyn Gardner

    hahaha! Great morning read! I am from the kiss two times crowd. But I attend an Orthodox church and the Russians there kiss three times, the Romanians two, those native to Massachusetts say a quick hello and then break eye contact…..My Portuguese colleagues kiss once, my Latina colleagues twice, my Indian colleagues not at all. Just a brief handshake and when I went to hug – big faux pas. In Egypt you kiss on both cheeks for women but for men, a loose handshake like a dead fish. It’s dizzying.There is a fun book that is used fairly often in the business world called Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands? It’s a great look at greetings and more~

  • Tara Porter-Livesay

    I am okay with giving Cheek High-fives — I so just wish I knew how to know how many we’re going to do and WHY?!?!?

  • Colleen Connell Mitchell

    My 15 year old son still cracks me up with his cheek kiss awkwardness. Especially when we offer the sign of peace at Mass. It’s like cheek kiss overload. He tries to head it off by sticking his hand out, but it stops no one. I am more used to it now, but I have definitely had some awakward, “Oh my Lord, I almost kissed that person on the lips” moments.

  • Richelle Wright

    my kids used to call your cheek high fives “french kisses.” we’ve had to explain the difference, especially after the day that our oldest girl came home after visiting her old primary school to see the staff there, saying she was so excited to see the director… “he even gave her a french kiss!”

  • Lindsey M

    I am in Mexico so we do either the “cheek hug” and air kiss, “cheek hug and light kiss either before or after, always bodies hugging while doing this as well. In the beginning it can be complicated but you get accustomed to it very quickly. There are some whom I am really close to where we just give a light peck on the lips with a big hug, but that is only to a small select few. I always found it weird hugging and kissing strangers though. That happens a lot here. I’ve been here 6 months and still find it weird.

  • The Afrikaners will greet sometimes by kissing on the lips-women or men it doesn’t matter. One time a new friend of mine forgot I was American I suppose and kissed me on the lips. Was weird! Try to make sure I divert somehow if it looks like someone is coming that way.

  • graciela

    We are a mixed-up texan-mexican-american family and we kiss on the cheek either once or twice, once w/men and twice with ladies. ( I think??? not exactly a strict rule) When we all get together, the greetings can take a while. More than once I have been cheek-kissing a relative when someone turns a head and we end up mouth-kissing. its extra disturbing because we’re family. I’d almost rather mouth-kiss a stranger.

    • Tara Porter-Livesay

      Ha. I loved your last sentence. Fabulous and funny. 🙂

  • Dawn F.

    Tara, thanks for the laugh. My family and I are 3 months into living in SE Asia and because the honeymoon period ended just recently, I am so grateful every time something makes me laugh hard. 🙂 No cheek kissing or high-fiving here. A “wai” and slight bow is instead what we do and I just was informed that there are some people I need to wai and others I don’t due to age, title, etc. Thankfully, the Thai are gracious. 🙂 As I thought about your article and read other comments, I realize how I almost wish there was more touching/open affection shown here. I miss some of it and, b/c I’m still not sure which fellow western friends are “touchers”, there is really no affection via touch shown in those relationships either. All in good time. 🙂 Thanks again for a great and humorous post.

    • I lived in Thailand too– and Yes, totally agree with the lack of physical touch. I’m originally from the south where there’s lots of hugging, so it was a strange shift for me, too. 🙂

      • Dawn F.

        Hi, Laura! We had breakfast in Woodland Park together before I came; not sure if you connected my profile pic with who I was. 🙂 Btw, I’m not sure I ever thanked you for being willing to meet and share a bit with me before we left. I can’t believe we’re already 3 months in!! Hope you and your family are well – gaze at those mountains a bit for me sometime. 😉

        • Dawn! Oh my, YES! Sorry I couldn’t tell from the pic!! How’s it going?!?! Are you settling in? Your kids? Your heart? Have you connected with people well? Can’t wait to hear!! Let me know if you need anything or need a connection– so sorry I didn’t do that b/f you left! Lots of love to you from here, friend!

          • Dawn F.

            No problem, Laura – I don’t expect you to squint at every gravatar to see if you maybe had lunch (not breakfast – I was wrong in my previous comment in hindsight) with the person who commented. 😉 I will email you sometime in the near future with some of the details regarding the questions you asked – I’ll look forward to being in touch again!

    • Tara Porter-Livesay

      I have finally accepted that nobody is going to write a manual for me so I have to always just guess at what I am supposed to do. Haitians that are having a deep conversation hold hands while they do it. That one I can handle. Once my face (lips especially) are involved it all gets too intense for me and makes me nervous.

  • Awesome! Loved this read . . . Oh man, I think the thing we didn’t expect most was the whole feeling like our kids with their blonde hair were movie stars and getting stopped so often to take pictures with random strangers in SE Asia. I expected the move would make them humble and get the “hard lessons” of feeling like a minority, and instead i think in some ways it inflated their egos! argh . . . . funny.

    No kisses there, just wai’s (bows with hands together).

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  • The Miskito people we love sniff on the neck or behind the ear… it can either be a quick sniff or a looooong one. Either way, I love it!

    • Tara Porter-Livesay

      The days you forget to wear sufficient deoderant are much more consequential in Honduras. 🙂

  • So funny. I have definitely been there. Probably one of my funniest mistakes was asking one of the kids, inadvertently, what color underwear was his uncle wearing. I was trying to teach the kids colors in English and was asking them what color different things were. I forgot that in Uganda pants means underwear and said, “What color are uncle’s pants?” They first looked horrified and laughed hysterically at me.

  • Joy_F

    I think one of my biggest ones was in leaving China and settling into Japan. My husband and I shoved people out of the way to get on the train in Japan. While this is common, expected practice in China, it is extremely rude in Japan. Oops. Not all Asian subways are created equally we found out.

    • Tara Porter-Livesay

      Hi Joy!
      This is good information to have should I ever make it to that side of the globe. Thanks 🙂

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