Apart from certain circles and in some Quebec cities, the social cheek kissing culture has never been recognized as a form of etiquette in Canada. Most Canadians aren’t accustomed to this norm and have not been raised with such a practice. In fact, some Canadians stereotype the act of cheek kissing as pompous and pretentious.
This is far from the matter in Europe, where cheek kissing is a very prominent form of social convention. It is different in every European culture, so I’m speaking of my experience here in Brussels, particularly with the francophones. Here, it is common to greet people with one kiss on the cheek, two on special occasions, and likewise, part with a kiss. (It isn’t odd if you run into someone on the streets in a “hi/bye” situation and end up kissing twice, respectively, within one minute.) Most commonly, kisses are exchanged between close friends, relatives or acquaintances.
What’s most entertaining is that the cheek kisses are not reserved for woman-to-woman and woman-to-man, but with man-to-man as well. It a gesture of friendliness and companionship; a form of bonding through ritualized kisses.
As a newcomer, I was caught off-guard when I saw that even officials and professionals (varying from front desk receptionists, to cashiers, to doctors and even to police officers) will stop whatever they are doing—be it in helping you out with an important matter or in scanning your groceries to make the line go faster—and kiss a close acquaintance or friend that just walked by.
Coming from North America, you are often taught to shake hands upon greeting someone new at an event. This detail is important in the business world, but very easily ignored at a cocktail party or at a gathering. During the get-together, when you are introduced to someone new, it is polite to lean in for a light kiss on the cheek otherwise you are left with the two options: either insulting the other person, or having your reached out handshake awkwardly stuck between you and the other person who is already going in for the kiss.
After living in Brussels for six months, I believe I am rather integrated into the kissing culture. I kiss friends every time we see each other and now I even great a new acquaintance with a polite kiss. When I come to work, each colleague kisses to say good morning and kisses when leaving home (that doesn’t exclude bosses). This cheek kissing etiquette even extends to kissing the receptionists at the gym every time I enter or leave. More than that, I know how to vocalize kisses on the telephone: “Bisous!”
But now that I’ve figured out the Brussels kissing pattern, another problem arises. It’s a rather confusing problem that makes a mess (or a funny story) out of every greeting—how do you greet people of different European origins. Who do you kiss? When do you kiss? How do you kiss? How many times? Left cheek? Right cheek? Both? Ah! It’s the kissing minefield.
I myself have still not figured out a way to orient but two main distinctions I try to stick to. First, the Dutch/Flemish like to air kiss, preferring to avoid the contact of moist lips with their cheeks and are a bit more selective of who they kiss. And finally, Italians kiss three times starting with the left cheek. Remember that and you are sure not to cause a face-on collision.