Latin Greetings – Kiss, Hug or Handshake?

July 5, 2009 by:
Latin Greetings – Kiss, Hug or Handshake?

Westerners are often times confused with what greeting gesture to use while in Latin America.Generally, Western cultures utilize handshakes and hugs – handshakes for business and unfamiliar acquaintances, and hugs for close family and friends.


On the other hand, Latin cultures rarely use hugs for their embrace of choice.Rather it is customary to give a lipless kiss on the right check, even if it’s your first time meeting a person through a mutual friend, but not in a business setting.

A bit confused? I was too.Here is a list of the greeting gestures in common social settings in Panama:

Male to Male; It is almost always a handshake.Only if the other male is a close friend or a member of your family you will give a hug.

Female to Female;Always a kiss except in business settings.

Male to Female;Here’s where it gets complicated.   The following encounters will be between a male and a female.

Long time friends:Kiss

First encounter:Handshake

First encounter via mutual friend, i.e. a friend introduces you to his/her co-worker:   Kiss

First encounter multiple people: All kisses even if there’s a large group.It is only excusable not to kiss the group when there is a large obstacle making introductions difficult.I.E. a group of 10 people sitting around a table and it’s bothersome and awkward to go around the entire table.In that case, a simple wave to the group and saying “hola, mucho gusto” will do.

Second encounters without the mutual friend:Always a kiss, even if you didn’t talk to the person the first time you met a person for the first time at a lounge and 6 days later you bumped into each other at a coffee shop.This would qualify for a kiss greeting.

Children:Informal handshake regardless of gender.Males should only kiss if the female is an adult.Females may kiss other teenagers females even if there is an significant age difference.

Business setting long time friends:Kiss

Business setting acquaintances:Handshake.Business settings typical are influenced by Western corporate culture.So even though you might kiss greet that same person at the library, in the board room you will shake hands.

Sticky situations:

Meeting the family.ALWAYS KISS THE MOTHER.If you are a Westerner and you’re meeting a significant others family for the first time, make a point to kiss the mother.Latinos have very close knit families and a mother’s first impression can make or break the relationship. Kissing her will demonstrate a level of Latino cultural understanding – this will definitely earn brownie points.

Restaurants.While I was dining with my mother in Argentina, I would make proper introductions with our waiters.If our server was female, I would be greeted with a handshake and my mother with a kiss.In this situation, the male never should gesture towards a kiss, rather settle for the handshake.

Country cultural customs.In Panama, rural interior customs are much more conservative.In places like Boquete and Pedasí it may not always be appropriate to lead with a kiss.When in doubt, observe your local surroundings and follow suit.

Things to remember.

Who leads?Typically the male leads introduction.So, if you are the Western male do not wait for the female to initial the greeting.Make the move.

Suave. Do not dive bomb into kisses.Nothing is more painful, and slightly embarrassing than smashing into each other faces like a mountain goat.To avoid potentially fracturing your face, try posting your arm against the opposite persons shoulder to control the speed.

One for the road too.Be sure to kiss everyone on your way out the door.Leaving without a goodbye kiss will be considered rude.

I am quickly coming on my 1000nd day in Latin America and these are some of the introduction lessons that I have learned.The way in which you greet someone will significantly shape your first impression with that person.Good luck, and pucker up.

Please leave a comment.

More about the Author:  Read Evan’s Bio

Evan Terry Forbes

Evan Forbes 122 post in this blog.

Evan Terry Forbes is an Author, Entrepreneur and Hall of Fame Traveler. He writes entertaining books about how travel has changed his life. In so many beautiful ways. Currently, Evan is traveling with his retired mother for 1 year through Europe and Asia. This book will be called, Travels With My Mother - How Travel Transformed A Mother-Son Relationship. Read his books here.

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6 Comments on "Latin Greetings – Kiss, Hug or Handshake?"

  1. Hilary on Sun, 12th Jul 2009 6:53 pm 

    Very observative of you Evan and I believe quite on point. Still might be a bit hard for someone who is coming to live in Panama to wrap their head around the concept, but it’s a very good starting point. Greeting faux paus can make or break any situation.

  2. Rob on Thu, 23rd Jul 2009 3:32 pm 

    Good Description. One comment though. You referr to yourself or others from the US as \westerners\(in this and other articles)\…If you are a Westerner and you’re meeting a significant others…\ You can use that if you are somewhere in Asia, ME or Eastern Europe, but not in Panama or Anywhere else in LATAM. Chances are they are more \westerners\ than you, geographically speaking. A stupid observation I know, but since most of your articles are quite good I though I add my 2 cents to help you make them better. Most people in LatAm consider themselves westerners too.

  3. Patrizia on Tue, 22nd Jun 2010 8:16 am 

    you left out the “flying kisses”, which are my favorite. As a girl, you can always get out of kissing everyone when leaving by flying kisses with your hands to everybody rushing a “bye bye!” and running out the door.

    And in Panama it doesn´t even get close to the complications of other cultures where the number of kisses state how close you are to the person. In Italy, it is 2 kisses, standard. In other places, could be 3 or more, depending on how close you are!

  4. N on Tue, 21st Sep 2010 8:00 am 

    Actually, working for a large multinational here in Panama, the prevalence of kissing in a business setting is quite high. Daily with your work team/ colleagues you run into, and although the hand shake for the first encounter (eg. Interview), the second (eg. Offer Letter) is still a kiss.

  5. 9 Good Gringo Habits on Tue, 10th May 2011 7:24 pm 

    [...] be an easy habit to practice. Everytime you greet a girl that you know, you should give her a lipless kiss on the side of the check.  Do this both when you meet her and when you leave.  If you don’t greet girls with a kiss, [...]

  6. Understanding El Gringo Frio on Sat, 18th Jun 2011 11:17 am 

    [...] ones more, both physically and verbally. Physically, this can be seen in their greetings. They kiss on the cheek instead of shake hands. They are also more willing to publicly demonstrate affections (think 180 [...]

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