The Cheek Kiss

Thankfully, before I arrived in Lima, I had been properly warned about the traditional greeting and departing gesture: the cheek kiss. Though this warning was appreciated, I don’t think it could have prepared me for the onslaught of kissing that occurs and every social gathering in Lima.

At first it was just with Alvaro’s family, a simple cheek kiss to say hello and then again to say goodbye. Easy enough. It gets tricky, however, when a large group of people arrive at the same time and need to greet another large group of people. When Alvaro’s three aunts, cousin and grandfather arrive at his parent’s house they must greet Alvaro, his parents, his sister and me. Custom says that they must greet each of us with a traditional cheek kiss, which means there are almost thirty kisses. Unlike the United States, you can’t simply walk into the room and project a simple, “Hhheeeyyy!!!!” to everyone present.

The greater challenge? What if everyone is already sitting at the table when you come in? Well, then you must walk around the table individually kissing each person. If you are to leave early, you must do the same.Forget trying to sneak away unnoticed- it’s impossible in Peru. It’s also helpful to plan your exit about fifteen minutes before you actually have to leave because it will take that long to properly kiss everyone.

I find some benefits to this. For starters, I like that it is well known in Peru that you will only give one kiss. When I was in Germany, I was greeted by students from all over the globe, some of which came from cheek kissing countries. It was also a little game to try to discover if this person was going to go in for one or two cheek kisses. More than once I deftly dodged an almost very awkward meet-in-the-middle kiss from misjudging their customs. Secondly, it takes away the awkward how-well-do-I-know-this-person moment. You know the feeling. When you get ready to leave do you shake hands? Simply say goodbye? Go in for an awkward, maybe unexpected hug? In Peru, you kiss everyone, no questions asked.

The weirdest thing for me to adjust to is that you even cheek kiss complete strangers. A few times, Alvaro and I have been out and run into someone he knows. With Peruvian introductions a cheek kiss is just as common as a “nice to meet you”. I think that most American’s appreciate the 12-18 inches that a handshake separates them from this new stranger. In Peru, you’re up close and personal from Day One.

I’ve yet to figure out how this works in more delicate situations. What happens if you run into an ex? What about that girl from class that you always clash with? What if you are meeting because you’re in the middle of an argument? And how do you say goodbye after a breakup? For me, a cheek kiss is intimate, but maybe for Peruvians it is not.

And finally, the best part of this whole cheek kiss thing: usually the responsibility falls on the guy. So 50% of the time, I don’t have to worry, I just wait for them to make the move and it’s smooth sailing from there.