When we left Japan to come home to Britain for Christmas, my father-in-law came to see us off. He shook my hand as a token gesture towards my nationality but didn’t make any physical contact with his daughter. In fact, in more than eight years of marriage, I have not once seen my wife kiss or hug her parents. I suspect this might seem rather cold to some, but she is close to her parents; they just don’t express it physically.
As a somewhat uptight Brit, I like the bow. You know where you are with greetings. This was brought home to me a couple of days ago as I attended a large family Christmas gathering where, as well as my parents and my brothers and their wives and children, in attendance were my brothers’ wives’ families. And that’s where it all gets a bit complicated on the greetings front. In Japan I would have bowed to one and all. Simple. Oh, I know in Japan there are rules about depths of bows and lengths of bows and whatnot but as a foreigner leeway is offered and you can simply offer your bow as best you see fit and carry on knowing that you probably haven’t caused too much offence. Surely, here in the country of my birth I should know the rules and conventions of greetings better, but I don’t.
I’m fine with my closest family – hugs and kisses for my mother, brothers’ wives, and nieces (although there does still seem to be some confusion about whether a single-cheek kiss or one on each is the way to go), and warm handshakes for my father and brothers. Some American friends have expressed surprise that I’m not in the habit of hugging my father and brothers, but that’s just not our way, and like my wife and her father it is no indication of any lack of emotional feelings for each other.
But with my sister-in-laws’ sisters and such I get all confused. I know them fairly well in that we have met often, but some I have not seen for a good few years. The one I have met least often approached me and we clasped hands. Then I leaned in to plant a kiss on the cheek just as she thought the greeting was over and pulled back. The result was an awkward lunge that made it look to all and sundry as though I had just flown over from Japan and immediately tried to get off with my brother’s wife’s sister.
That uncertainty has been there all week as I run into people with whom I’m no longer sure I have a relationship that merits a kiss or a hug, and I wish we could have the simplicity of the bow because then there is no room for doubt. You never have to explain to a room-full of people that, just a minute ago, you weren’t actually trying to pull your wife’s aunt.