The kiss of death?
Tricky etiquette - Andy Welch looks into the dos and don'ts of a close-up and personal greeting
Picture the scene. You're male, in your mid-20s and have been asked to attend an interview for your dream job.
Suited and booted, you certainly look the part, anxiously waiting outside the office to be called in.
On entering the room, you're faced by a panel of three interrogators - two men and a woman.
After greeting the blokes with firm handshakes and a smile, you misjudge the situation when you turn to the lady, and, after an uncomfortable pause and limp handshake, you decide to go for it - you lean in and peck her on the cheek. That's how grown-up professionals greet one another, isn't it? Apparently, it's not. It's all very confusing.
Either way, you've just kissed goodbye to any chance you might have had of getting the job - literally.
A kiss greeting is one of the most complicated issues etiquette can throw up.
How many times should you have met someone before you kiss them? What should you do if they're older than you, or younger? How can you read their body language to know what's appropriate? And even if you pluck up the courage and go for it, should you go for cheek or air? One cheek? Both? Or maybe even three kisses? Don't the French do three? Or is that the Italians?
This is exhausting. Time to ask the experts.
If in doubt, don't
Heather Pickering is an etiquette consultant for Protocol Plus, who provide tuition for individuals on business overseas. She's fed up of people kissing when they're introduced - which is happening in even the most rarefied of circles.
"It's disgraceful," she says. "In polite society, you do not kiss people on first meeting.
"In the old days, etiquette dictated a woman had to put her hand out before a man would shake it. If she didn't, the man didn't offer his. The same should go for kissing. A man should wait for the woman to move. During a job interview, one should never kiss anybody. The very idea is appalling," she continues.
"If you get off on the wrong foot by kissing someone when you shouldn't, it will cause problems. Formal behaviour is always more acceptable than informal, and it's only when you've learned the rules that you can adapt them. "Over-familiarity can be a great disadvantage with people. If I'm introduced to some great gangly bloke with smelly breath and he leans over to kiss me, it's terrible. No thank you."
But what if the person is young and attractive? Is that then ok?
" No, even then it's not right. If in doubt, don't."
So we've established that you should never offer a peck on the cheek to someone you've never met before, and if you don't think you should kiss someone, you probably shouldn't, but what about those people you know and want to show some genuine affection toward? "A kiss on one cheek is fine," says Heather. Great, at last something is simple. But wait ... " It really depends on the situation and it depends on your culture as to how many times you should kiss someone. In Ireland, one is acceptable, maybe two, but we do adopt other people's cultures, and that may cause problems.
"I go for two because I used to know a lot of French people and it's stuck with me. If you're meeting a Japanese person, you don't kiss at all. They don't kiss in Japan, even during sex I believe. "If you've been brought up going to France on holiday a lot, depending on which areas, you may opt for three or even five kisses," continues Heather.
" Men in the Middle East kiss each other as a matter of course, but blokes don't do that over here unless they've scored a goal playing football. If you don't greet with a kiss in the Middle East, however, you're being rude, so bear that in mind if you go there."
Phew! Finally, the oft-ridiculed 'air kiss' so beloved of theatre luvvies and ladies what lunch. Surely there's no place for this? "There is," explains Heather. "Ladies who lunch do it because they know each other and it's affectionate, without smudging their make-up, and theatre people do it because it's dramatic and it looks good."
This may all sound a little complicated, but it really needn't be, as long as you don't panic and flutter while trying to decide what to do.
Making do with a handshake when someone is expecting you to pucker up might cause an awkward moment, but it'll be nothing compared to the embarrassment of pulling some unwilling soul toward you and forcing a kiss on them. " People start behaving stupidly when they're confused," says Heather, adding that it's only us who worry about such things.
"The continentals have it down to a fine art. Their whole ethos is much more defined than ours, down to the way they address each other. France and Spain are certainly more formal than we are, and Germany is very formal.
" It all comes down to over-familiarity. It's like nurses calling you 'dear' or 'my love.' It's all part of the great dumbing down of society, but we should have standards."
One suspects she might be too late on this point.
State by state
If you're thinking of travelling any time soon, follow our guide to European kissing etiquette, and never make a mistake again.
France - As we know, the French love to kiss. They even have a style named after them, although it must be stated, a French kiss as a greeting should be reserved for all but your most open-minded friends. Parisians adopted the four-kiss rule a few years ago, left cheek first, while three is the order of the day in Brittany. One on each cheek will suffice for most other parts of the country.
Netherlands - The Dutch always start and end their kissing on the same cheek, so three is the minimum you can get away with. If it's an elder or close family member, add a few more to show some extra affection.
Spain, Austria and Scandinavia - This group of nations all opt for two - the only ones who stipulate how you do it. They go for right cheek first.
Germany - Not that we want to perpetuate lazy stereotypes, but the Germans are ruthlessly efficient when it comes to greetings. Kissing is for family and close friends only. To anyone else, a handshake is enough.
Italy -Despite their reputation for flamboyant greetings, the Italians restrict kissing for very close friends and family members only, with no number stated as the correct amount. Hugs and handshakes make do for everyone else.
For more information on etiquette training, visit www.protocolplus.com