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 Italy’s All Saints and All Souls days have nothing to do with Halloween

Spooky traditions haven’t really caught on in Italy where strong Catholic beliefs mean the country has its own way of honoring the dead, says Silvia Marchetti.

Why Italy’s All Saints and All Souls days have nothing to do with Halloween

Many Italians gathered last night to celebrate Halloween dressed as ghosts, witches, skeletons and zombies. Hotels, restaurants and pubs organised Halloween-themed events with spooky decor and music.

Each year I’m shocked by how Halloween penetrates Italian culture even though it’s a foreign import from Anglo-Saxon countries.

The real Italian festivities this week are All Saints’ Day (Ognissanti) celebrated on November 1st to remember all saints and martyrs during Christian history, and Il Giorno dei Morti o dei Defunti on November 2nd (the Day of the Dead, known elsewhere as All Souls’ Day) to commemorate the beloved deceased ones, mainly family members but also close friends.

While November 1st is a public holiday (and many Italians exploit it as an excuse for a ponte, a long weekend), November 2nd is a working day.

The entire week preceding All Saints’ Day sees cars queuing up to go to the cemetery, people rush to bring flowers and a few prayers to the tombs of deceased loved ones, and streets are often jammed.

For many Catholic Italians, it’s actually the only time of the year they remember to honor their dead, as if ‘imposed’ by their religion. A bit like going to mass on Sundays; if they fail to do so, they might feel guilty or even fear punishment from above. 

After spending an hour or so at the graveyards – places Italians usually tend to avoid – on All Saints Day, after the spiritual duties are accomplished, they might gather for lunch, bringing cakes and pastries.

People in Italy bring flowers to their loved ones’ graves on All Saints’ Day. Photo: JORGE GUERRERO / AFP

In some southern regions so-called ossa di morto (bones of the dead) pumpkin-filled biscuits and raisin pan dei morti (bread of the dead) are bought, while in the north chestnut pies are baked. 

Ognissanti is a very private event that usually involves little or restricted get-togethers, brothers and close relatives share the graveyard trip but then each goes back home, with little feasting on fine food. 

Catholics don’t have any macabre ritual involving leaving an empty place at the table for a spirit to join us. It is a moment of sadness but also of joy because our dead loved ones have ascended to heaven and are all there waiting for us. It’s the celebration of love, rebirth over doom, and the promise of a future reunion with them in heaven. 

That is why November 1st and November 2nd in Italy really have nothing to do with Halloween, which I call the ‘culture of the grave’ and the celebration of ‘scary death as an end to itself’. 

Even though they may partake in Halloween as a mere consumeristic party, Italians are mainly Catholic and believers do not believe in the darkness of the night, in the damnation of the grave, in being haunted by wicked spirits who long to take vengeance on us, in witches flying on broomsticks and terrifying zombies coming out of tombs. 

Pumpkin is something we occasionally eat as a pasta filling; it’s certainly not a decorative spooky element.

Halloween, which in my view is imbued with paganism and the Protestant belief in an evil superior being and naughty spirits ready to strike down on sinners instead of forgiving them, is celebrated in Italy but lacks a religious or spiritual nature. It’s like the Chinese celebrating Christmas for the sake of buying gifts and acting western. 

Halloween deeply affected my childhood. I’m Roman Catholic and I attended Anglo-American schools abroad where Catholics were a minority and each year I drove my mom crazy by forcing her to sew me a ghost or witch dress. She’d take a bed blanket and cut open three holes for the eyes and nose, annoyed that I should be influenced by a celebration that was not part of my tradition. 

In elementary and middle school my foreign teachers would make us decorate classrooms with spooky drawings, bake skeleton-themed biscuits for trick-or-treating, and tell us ghost stories in the dark to create an eerie vibe. 

Once we were also taken to visit a cemetery and when I told my dad about it he got annoyed and did all sorts of superstitious gestures to ward off evil. 

Halloween has always freaked me out but I did not want to miss out on the ‘fun’ for fear of being looked down upon by other kids. And so I too started believing in vampires, zombies, and ghosts, particularly at night when I was alone in my bed and had to turn on the light. Still today, and I am much, much older, I have a recurring nightmare of an ugly evil witch who torments me and chases me up the staircase.

I soon learned that if for Anglo-Saxons a trip to the graveyard is a jolly event, like a stroll in the park, and ‘graveyard tourism’ is on the rise, for Catholic Italians it is a place accessible only during funerals, moments of prayer, or during the week of All Saints and All Souls days. 

Last time I visited Ireland the guide took us to a monumental graveyard with tombs as high as cars, and lavishly decorated. A few of my Italian male friends refused to enter and spent the whole day scratching their genitals to ward off jinx.

Halloween night is said to be when the barrier between the worlds of ghosts and humans comes down. But Italians don’t usually like to ‘party’ and mingle with the dead or other spirits. We instead honor the deceased with our prayers but the boundary remains firm in place: in fact, this is why our graveyards are placed outside of city centres.