Here’s how to do the Italian cheek kiss

In any country you go to, there's a long list of unwritten rules which it's wise to figure out quickly to avoid offence or embarrassment. And Italy has more of its fair share of such rules.

Here's how to do the Italian cheek kiss
To kiss or not to kiss? File photo: racorn/Depositphotos

From how to order your coffee to which pasta shapes to pair with which sauces, from hand gestures to using 'tu' and 'Lei', trying to fit in with the Italians can be a minefield.

And one of the customs with the highest potential for embarrassment is the cheek kiss.

Newcomers are faced with the 'to kiss or not to kiss' dilemma each time they meet someone new, and unfortunately there are no hard and fast rules as in some other countries. That means there's a strong likelihood of accidentally kissing someone on the lips, bashing noses, or otherwise marking yourself out as an awkward foreigner.

Photo: pio3/Depositphotos

In general, Italians are more touchy-feely than their more northern neighbours, and kissing as a greeting has a long history in Italy.

The Ancient Romans are credited with spreading the kiss throughout Europe and North Africa, though they certainly didn't invent the custom. Writings from the time discuss kissing at length and reveal the Romans had three distinct categories: a passionate kiss was a 'savium', a kiss to the lips with the mouth closed was a 'basium', while a kiss to the hand or cheek was an 'osculum'.

READ ALSO: 12 mistakes foreigners make when moving to Italy

At that time, kissing wasn't as strongly linked to love as it is today, so it would be used as a mark of respect; slaves, for example, would kiss their masters.

Romans also used the biblical concept of the 'holy kiss' or 'kiss of peace', and today, priests often kiss the altar during Catholic Mass while some Catholic pilgrims kiss ancient statues such as that of St Peter in the Rome basilica, as well as the Pope's symbolic Fisherman's Ring. Kissing the feet is a sign of deference, so many religious people kiss that statue's feet, and on Holy Thursday, the pope washes and kisses people's feet.

A 16th-century painting of Saints Peter and Paul performing the kiss of peace. Public domain photo.

Understanding the long history of the kiss might give some idea as to how ingrained it is in Italian culture, but it doesn't necessarily help you understand what to do when faced with the greeting – so here are our tips.

The general rule of the cheek kisses is to give one or two light kisses, one on each side. Your lips shouldn't touch the other person's cheek unless you are extremely good friends; instead, aim to lightly touch your cheek to theirs. As to which side you approach first, leaning right is usually more natural, but pick up on cues from the other person to avoid bumping heads.

When it comes to deciding when to use the kiss, cultural norms vary across the country, but the decision rests first and foremost on the context. That includes the social situation, yours and the other person's gender, and whether or not you've met them before.

Photo: Jason Hargrove/Flickr

It's an informal greeting so don't lean in when meeting your boss for the first time, or when your waiter for the evening introduces themselves. The kiss is less common at business and networking events and usually reserved for informal social gatherings – even then, some people just prefer to keep their personal space.

The greeting is most commonly used between two women, or a woman and a man, while men will generally shake hands with each other instead. In some areas though, mostly in the southern part of the country, man-on-man cheek kissing is the norm.

Consistency is key. If you've kissed someone at a previous meeting, or used the kiss when you said hello to them, make sure to do it again when you next meet them or say goodbye, otherwise they may wonder what they did to offend you.

But the main thing to remember is to follow other people's lead: if you're in a group and everyone else is doing the kiss, feel free to do likewise, but if you're unsure, it's best to err on the side of caution and give it a miss. Just because you're in Italy doesn't mean you have to adopt every single local custom, so people are unlikely to mind if you opt for a handshake or hug instead.

READ ALSO: Ten Italian lifestyle habits to adopt immediately

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Why Friday the 13th isn’t an unlucky date in Italy

Unlucky for some, but not for Italians. Here's why today's date isn't a cause for concern in Italy - but Friday the 17th is.

Why Friday the 13th isn't an unlucky date in Italy

When Friday the 13th rolls around, many of us from English-speaking countries might reconsider any risky plans. And it’s not exactly a popular date for weddings in much of the western world.

But if you’re in Italy, you don’t need to worry about it.

There’s no shortage of strongly-held superstitions in Italian culture, particularly in the south. But the idea of Friday the 13th being an inauspicious date is not among them.

Though the ‘unlucky 13’ concept is not unknown in Italy – likely thanks to the influence of American film and TV – here the number is in fact usually seen as good luck, if anything.

The number 17, however, is viewed with suspicion and Friday the 17th instead is seen as the unlucky date to beware of.

Just as some Western airlines avoid including the 13th row on planes, you might find number 17 omitted on Italian planes, street numbering, hotel floors, and so on – so even if you’re not the superstitious type, it’s handy to be aware of.

The reason for this is thought to be because in Roman numerals the number 17 (XVII) is an anagram of the Latin word VIXI, meaning ‘I have lived’: the use of the past tense apparently suggests death, and therefore bad luck. It’s less clear what’s so inauspicious about Friday.

So don’t be surprised if, next time Friday 17th rolls around, you notice some Italian shops and offices closed per scaramanzia’.

But why then does 13 often have a positive connotation in Italy instead?

You may not be too surprised to learn that it’s because of football.

Ever heard of Totocalcio? It’s a football pools betting system in which players long tried to predict the results of 13 different matches.

There were triumphant calls of ho fatto tredici! – ‘I’ve done thirteen’ – among those who got them all right. The popular expression soon became used in other contexts to mean ‘I hit the jackpot’ or ‘that was a stroke of luck!’

From 2004, the number of games included in Totocalcio rose to 14, but you may still hear winners shout ‘ho fatto tredici’ regardless.

Other common Italian superstitions include touching iron (not wood) for good luck, not toasting with water, and never pouring wine with your left hand.