I’ve lived in the Netherlands for almost 20 years, and still struggle with some aspects of Dutch culture. When do you shake hands? The moment of introduction is clear – both parties extend their right hands and shake, with a more or less firm and sweaty palm. But what about your colleagues? Should you shake their hands every time you see them, after a holiday, or in early January? Only on formal occasions, or at meetings when you might be shaking hands with people you’ve just met so not shaking the hands of your familiar colleagues might be seen as a rebuff? What’s the cut-off in terms of numbers? You arrive at a meeting. Five people are in the room: two you’ve never met, three you know well. Shaking hands with everyone is probably a good idea. But what if there are ten people? Or if someone arrives late? At an interview for a NWO research grant, the secretary informed all candidates in advance that there would be no hand shaking with committee members in order to save time. I didn’t particularly mind, but my Dutch colleagues found this extremely rude.
Kissing is even more complicated in multicultural settings – once, twice, thrice, or not at all if you don’t really like them? Should your lips actually touch the other person’s cheek, or is air-kissing expected, maybe even preferred?
Sometimes there is a complicated move involving both handshake and kissing. My instinct if doing the kissing thing, is to place one of my hands on the other person’s upper arm, going in for more of a Canadian hug. I’ve noticed some recoil at this invasion of space. Maybe the handshake is there to prevent too much contact between the upper bodies of the people involved.
I used to work in England where physical contact between colleagues is rare. Not because the English have a heightened sensibility for inappropriate workplace behaviour, but they’re just not very physically expressive. Now if I arrive at meetings in England with my arm outstretched, they recoil in fear, as I remember too late that a brief nod and smile will suffice.
Sally Wyatt, Professor Digital Cultures at Fasos