After a divisive referendum campaign, now is the time to kiss and make up. So it is fitting that polling day coincides with National Kissing Day.
The referendum calls for the UK to define our identity as a nation. And if Britishness conjures up images of extreme politeness and reservedness, the etiquette of our European counterparts is more closely associated with physical contact.
You’d be forgiven for thinking this familiarity among Europeans extends to the workplace. However, their rules on formal and informal behaviour are much more clearly defined. Many European languages are able to differentiate between how formal or informal the relationship is between a speaker and their interlocutor. And kissing at work is not the done thing.
In the UK, we attempt to muddle through without any such workplace behavioural code. Does one go in for a handshake? A hug? Or the continental cheek kiss? If so, one cheek kiss or two?
Touch can be an extremely effective tool in the workplace, both with colleagues and clients, as a means of encouraging a personal, supportive and trusting environment and to establish a bond. But you need to be careful; equality law prohibits harassment.
Harassment is defined as unwanted conduct which has the purpose or effect of violating the recipient’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading or offensive environment for them. So a one-off act, such as a kiss, could be deemed harassment. It all depends on how the conduct is viewed by the recipient, although hypersensitivity will be taken into account.
Perhaps a few dos and don’ts may offer some guidance.
Self-assurance will usually encourage people to follow your lead. You’re trying to build connections and establish trust, so worry less about the form of the contact. Overthinking is a killer. If awkwardness arises, diffuse the tension and try to make light of it. The whole point of the contact was to put the person at ease.
Better safe than sorry
If in doubt, play safe and go for the handshake. The offer of a handshake is much less intrusive, and you’re still engaging by using touch, albeit in a more formal manner.
Read more: How to master interview etiquette
If you do kiss, be wary not to single out your younger colleagues or your subordinates because they may feel they can’t object.
There's no universal rule
Use your emotional intelligence based on what you may know about the person, and their body language, to judge the situation.
If you’re not the tactile type, and you are facing a known “hugger”, smile, extend your hand on approach and maintain some distance. It may be acceptable to cheek kiss a longstanding colleague, but opt for a handshake if they are with someone you have never met. While you should look to avoid isolating them, you do not want to make them uncomfortable either.
The art of communication
If meeting clients with another colleague, discuss the meet-and-greet plan ahead of time.
It can be helpful to vocalise the form of contact you intend to take, as it is happening, to kill any confusion. For example, if you’re meeting a long-standing business acquaintance, say: “Don’t be silly, give me a hug.” But if they are accompanied by a colleague you have never met before, say: “Just a handshake for you.”