To Kiss or Not to Kiss?

In the Horn of Africa, it really depends

By / August 2015

I’m at a dinner party. A person approaches, their face smiling, their cheeks shimmering with a thin sheen of Djibouti sweat. The face gets closer, closer, closer. It is almost touching mine now, looming, damp, expectant. I have less than two seconds to process several things: gender, nationality, age, religion, and urban vs. rural. I have to process these things in order to respond appropriately and prepare for potential outcomes.

Djibouti is a complicated mixture of Somali, Afar, Yemeni, French, Ethiopian, and ‘other’ cultures. This means there is a complicated mixture of appropriate greetings. Two kisses on the cheek for French men, women, also children. Three kisses on the cheek for Ethiopian women. A nod of the head toward Brits and a wave and smile for the Americans, of either gender, usually accompanied by “Hey.”

You kiss the back of the hand of Djiboutian women and then they kiss the hand you kissed. A third kiss seems optional. Hand kisses should be firm and confident, not weak or flimsy. Cheek kisses are acceptable, but the trouble comes when I go for the hand and they go for the cheek. If I make a mistake and go the wrong direction, I will end up kissing my friend on the lips. Or I will end the number of kisses too early and offend my friend. Or I will end the kissing early, realize it when the other person is left hanging mid-cheek-kiss, and I will try to make up for it by coming back in to fulfill the count obligation but the other person has already pulled back and now I’m hanging mid-cheek-kiss, and we both laugh awkwardly.

Or I will shake the hand when I should have kissed the cheek, I will kiss the cheek when I should have kissed the hand, I will kiss a man of a nationality I should not be kissing, or I will kiss people in the wrong order according to age. I may also end up with my face squeezed between the warm, damp palms of an elderly rural woman’s hands and she will pinch me and pull my face close for a loud, juicy, full-on lip kiss. And then another and another, each one wetter and louder than the last, and some things you just need to be prepared for. I speak from experience.

Even though I’ve lived in a kissing culture for over twelve years, kissing sometimes still feels weird. There are still so many questions, even when I know who to kiss and how many times, and on which body part. How much actual contact should be made between lips and cheek (elderly rural woman aside)? None. Simply brushing cheeks is fine. Should there be an accompanying noise? Sure, within reason. But not the fakey ‘mwah, mwah.’ More of a quick smack or pop — unless I am kissing friends from Madagascar, who seem to prefer silence. What if the noise comes out anyway?

The more I consider it, however, it isn’t actually the kissing or cheek-brushing that feels strange. In fact, I’ve come to prefer this mode of greeting to the full body hug that people who barely know each other in the United States might employ. When hugging a taller man, where do you put your hands? Do you reach up for the neck or go low around his waist? Where do you put your head? Lean into his chest with your cheek? Smash your face right into his body? Do the side-hug thing? How close do you hug? How long do you hug? Do you tap-tap-tap with your hands on his back? Do you add an extra little squeeze? What about a shorter man? I don’t really want his face pressed into my chest, so…awkward side hug it is.

Better to kiss cheeks.

What feels strange about the kiss, though, is the accompanying uncertainty about when to employ it. Do I kiss everyone I see, even if I’m in a rush? Do I kiss people I’m just meeting for the first time? What about the guy I recognize but we’ve never really talked and now we find each other in the grocery check-out line together? Ok, probably not. But if someone else introduces us, then yes, right? In a group, do I extend kisses in a certain order? Do I interrupt a conversation between two people simply so I can kiss one of them? And then should I kiss both of them just because, well, we love kissing? Do I kiss upon arrival and departure? If I’m sitting when the person leans in, do I stand? Should I have stood up earlier? How long afterwards, while they make the smooching rounds in a group, do I remain standing?

I’ve asked friends and feel reasonably confident that I can greet a local woman appropriately, that I can attend a local wedding or a funeral and not be an embarrassment to the host or an unconsciously rude guest. My trouble comes when I take into account that there are more than Djiboutian people in my life. There are Yemenis, Kenyans, Ethiopians, French, Germans, Brits, Italians, Americans, Nigerians, Congolese…

I feel most comfortable greeting Djiboutian friends, Somali and Afar, and I feel least comfortable when greeting French friends. I suspect this is because I have spent more time in Somalia and Djibouti than in France and have invested more energy learning the local culture than I have invested in learning the ways of the large expatriate French community.

People often recommend that when you are in doubt about kissing, don’t. I disagree. (Of course, I mean this woman to woman or man to man. I don’t recommend going around a Muslim country and kissing people of the opposite gender). As foreigner in this particular part of the world, it’s better to be overly warm and friendly. I’m already foreign, I already stick out, and people already tease me about my strange mannerisms. I may as well give them one more thing to laugh at and talk about behind my (warm and friendly) back.

I think my best solution regarding the conundrum of greeting people is to simply act like the old bush women. They walk up to friends and strangers alike, grab their faces, and plant fat, juicy smacker-oos on their lips. People might think I’m bizarre, not entirely sane. But I’m an American who has lived in the Horn of Africa for over twelve years, eleven of those years in the brain-numbing heat of Djibouti. It is highly possible that they’re right.

Here I come, pucker up.


Rachel Pieh Jones, a regular contributor to EthnoTraveler, is a writer living in Djibouti City. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Brain Child, the Big Roundtable, Running Times, and Best American Travel Writing.