Credit: Pui Shan Chan

Handshake or kiss on the cheek? Where to touch someone when you first meet

Oxford University has some advice on how to stop an important business meeting getting awkward.

by Rachel Savage
Last Updated: 27 Oct 2015

We’ve all been there: a stranger swoops in to kiss you on the cheek, leaving your outstretched hand trailing mid-air, or you go for the French double bise, only to be met with cheek barging.

Researchers at Oxford University and Finland’s Aalto University have attempted to navigate the social minefield for you, and it seems that a handshake really is the safest option when meeting a stranger if you want to be sure of avoiding all awkwardness (as long as you’re prepared to accept a cheek kiss if they do go for one).

They asked more than 1,300 men and women from the UK, France, Finland, Italy and Russia to colour in the areas of their body that they would let people touch, from a partner to a complete stranger. Here’s a heatmap showing the results - the lighter the colour, the more acceptable it is to touch someone there (blue for male touchers, red for female).

Source: PNAS

Women are generally more comfortable with being touched than men, although they’re not ok with being touched intimately by anyone other than their partner or mother. Men, on the other hand, would rather a female acquaintance touched their genitals than their mother.

The Finns, for whom nude saunas are an integral part of their culture, were the most comfortable being touched, us prudish Brits the least. However, the researchers concluded that ‘cultural influences were minor.’

So what about that all important business meeting with a new contact or client? A handshake probably is safest – if people do go for a kiss, they often hold arms to lessen the intimacy of the move, Professor Robin Dunbar, who led the study, said.

‘Most people will put their hand on the arm of the person as a braking mechanism and to let the other person known that they are not about to chomp them,’ he told the Telegraph. ‘If you just launched at someone I think most people would be alarmed.’

‘I would guess that kissing a stranger on the cheek would still make a lot of people uncomfortable. But with modern life it has become as conventional as a handshake and so no longer seems overly-familiar, especially if you have been introduced by a friend.’

So there we have it: if you haven’t been introduced by a friend, don’t go for the rocket launch cheek kiss.

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