Last week I was in Singapore giving a talk organised by a German bank to an audience of mainly Asian women. Though I was 7,000 miles from home, and seven hours ahead of myself, I felt weirdly comfortable. Big banks are reassuringly like McDonald's: they are the same the world over. Everyone speaks English, all the women wear the same Diane von Fürstenberg dresses and carry the same fancy handbags.
Yet in the middle of the sameness, there is one thing that refuses to go global: how people greet each other. Over and over again last week I found myself at a loss. Ought I to kiss the American woman at whose house I had just eaten dinner? I made a lunge for her cheek, just as she was stepping backwards with a smile and a friendly goodnight.
When in Rome
Still trickier was deciding how to greet a group consisting of an Indian woman, a Chinese man and an Australian woman. All four of us hopped from one foot to another uncertainly, opting eventually for no greeting at all.
This sort of thing has always been a problem but it is getting worse. In the old days, the principle was when-in-Rome. So when actually in Rome you kissed on both cheeks anyone you knew reasonably well. In Holland, it was three cheeks. In Russia you might expect a crushing bear hug, in Japan a nod and in India hands clasped and a namaste. In the US and Germany you could look forward to a bonecrusher of a handshake, in the Middle East something more like a limp fish.
Global business has made matters more complicated. We no longer know whose culture trumps whose. Is it the host country’s? Is it the majority in the room? As no one seems to know, what tends to happen is a general confusing, embarrassing free-for-all. We live in a permanent state of hello hell.
To make matters worse, we have all borrowed each other's greetings – which means we can be all at sea in our own country and even at our own desk. When I joined the Financial Times in the 1980s, there was no kissing at all. Then, at some regrettable point about 15 years ago, journalists started kissing on both cheeks – but only people who they liked and had not seen for a while.
Now an even more unwelcome form of greeting has arrived: the hug. This is how young Anglo-Saxons routinely greet each other outside work, but now they have started doing it in the office too. The hug represents far too much touching for my liking, but is also devilishly hard to get right: there is the full hug, the side hug, and the hug accompanied by a slap on the back.
In my other job as a non-executive director, hello hell has got so bad that I find myself dreading the start of every meeting. Diversity might be a good thing on a board, but diversity of greeting is deplorable. My European colleagues are confident and enthusiastic kissers, as is one of the British women non-execs, while various of my male colleagues seem to dislike it as much as I do. Which means I often end up kissing some of the directors but not others – which seems very wrong indeed.
I used to think the best way to survive hello hell was to decide if you were an alpha or beta. The first is always quick to take the lead, so that the other person has no choice but to follow. The trouble with this strategy is that it a) leaves the alpha exposed to etiquette breaches and b) does not work if the person you are trying to greet is also an alpha and is trying to hug you just as you are jabbing your right hand into their ribs.
As the market has failed to find a solution, the only answer is some kind of regulation. There is a desperate need for a Global Greetings Protocol, an agreement that all companies and nations would be encouraged to sign up to that would establish firm rules for everyone to follow.
The GGP would be beautifully simple and go something like this: "In a business context the only permissible greeting is a handshake. The shake must be medium-firm and medium-brief. It does not apply to a) colleagues who see each other frequently and b) groups of more than six people, as shaking would take too long."
Opting out of the GGP would be possible on religious or conscientious grounds, though the refusenik would be required to wear a little badge with a picture of hands crossed out to avoid any confusion.
Not only would embarrassment be brought to an end, the brain would then be free to do what it is good at: concentrate on those first impressions that matter so much in business, without having to worry about hands, arms, heads, lips and cheeks. -(Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2013)