Greeting strangers is – or should be – simple. You stick your arm out and grasp the other person’s hand. Then you shake.
Unless you’re in Miami.
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In Miami, you might shake. But you’re more likely to kiss a cheek. Or both cheeks. You might actually use your lips or you might do a drive-by, launching an air kiss to the heavens. There are hugs, some too light and others far too intense. There’s even the occasional fist bump.
Only one thing is certain. In Miami, you will almost certainly end up kissing people you have never seen before and will never see again. How you feel about that will vary, depending on where you’re from.
“It’s not so easy to define the correct thing to do here,” admits local etiquette expert Yvonne Salas, who literally makes a living defining the correct thing to do here. “Things that are standard, things that are considered good manners no matter where you’re at, aren’t always true here.”
Director and co-founder of Etiqueta Excellence, which offers courses in business protocol and etiquette for all ages, Salas says business etiquette often begins with instruction on introductions. The standard is to not get too close: shake hands, smile and make eye contact, and most importantly, respect the other person’s personal space.
“In South Florida, that has nothing to do with the way things are done,” Salas says.
She isn’t overstating the problem when she says the rules are different here. Miami’s way of introducing itself – at a business meeting or at a party – is distinctly its own.
You don’t kiss people you’ve just met in Pennsylvania or Texas or Wisconsin. And you definitely never kiss a business colleague. But there are powerful forces at work in Miami and not just the subtropical climate, which encourages a more relaxed standard of dress.
“We have such a rich influence from Latin America,” says Claudia Ahrens-Hernandez of The Etiquette and Social Advantage Institute and host of Univision’s “Cafe Con Claudia.” “Little by little we’ve become more and more open with our gestures. Even in a business environment, among a group of Latinos, a kiss is something you do and you don’t even think about.”
“We’re a kissing culture,” agrees cultural observer, El Nuevo Herald columnist and TV personality Alejandro Rios. “In Cuba, we kiss both our fathers and mothers, not just our mothers. I have a 21-year-old son, and he kisses me every day.”
That personal space Salas mentioned? It’s not a concept many Miamians even understand, Rios says.
“When I came here 25 years ago from Cuba, I didn’t know anything about that ‘I need my space’ thing,” he says. “That’s American culture, and I didn’t know what that was. I still don’t understand. People in married couples saying ‘I need my space.’ We just don’t deal with that. It’s not part of our culture.”
So what’s the best way to greet people? Is there a proper etiquette and should Miami follow it?
Etiquette authority Judith Martin – you know her as Miss Manners – says yes.
“I should think that in the light of recent news, people would reconsider accepting kissing and hugging as proper business behavior,” she says via email. “Even socially, it can be unpleasant, if not threatening. I’ve received many letters from readers, mostly from women but also from men, who complain of those who go straight for the lips, instead of the cheek, or who press their bodies close during hugs. It is time to bring back the handshake. Those who welcome more can always take it from there.”
The advice from Miami experts is similar. Salas teaches business clients not to embrace or kiss a person the first time they meet.
“You never know what the reaction will be. They might feel like you’re invading them,” she says.
In social situations, she suggests following one simple rule: “Your guide are your host and hostess. See what they’re doing and follow that path.”
Ahrens-Hernandez also suggests foregoing the hello kiss, especially in work situations.
“Etiquette is based on thinking of others. You must keep in mind the culture of the person you’re greeting, respect it and adapt,” she says. At work, “every time you go to greet someone, begin with a handshake. It’s like having insurance for your reputation. Socially it’s more casual. . . . but you know how when you don’t know what to wear, you wear black? When you don’t know what to do, do a handshake.”
As the current cultural climate brings about shifts in behavior, Ahrens-Hernandez and Salas say they’ve seen evidence of change already.
“The parameters for behavior hierarchy that dictated behavior through the centuries have changed,” Salas says. “Gender and age were the standards. We’ve removed gender. Once a man would pull out a chair for a female business colleague, but now not if she’s a CEO. It’s just in business now, but I think eventually it will permeate down to social interaction.”
But Rios likens the possibility of Miami changing its ways to unsuccessful attempts to shut down the cafecito windows at Cuban restaurants.
“Awhile back, they tried to close those windows because of some health issues,” he says. “That never happened. No way can you do that in Miami.
“Miami is a very special place. When I go on vacation, to Italy, London or Paris and I tell people I’m from Miami, it’s like I’m coming from this special place. You can see it in their faces. We have to be proud of all this culture.”