Who exactly should you kiss in Portugal? When should you kiss them? I don’t mean full on romantic smooches, which are obviously reserved for very special people. I’m talking about the friendly, everyday cheek kisses, one on each side of the face.
Although it’s an integral part of life here, I’m afraid cheek kissing in Portugal is something I still haven’t quite worked out properly.
After many years of living in countries where kisses form part of social greetings, you’d think I’d have sussed out who I should and shouldn’t kiss but sadly, I’m still confused.
I get that when you see friends and family, it’s normal to kiss on both cheeks to say hello, and I even do this with some of my British friends when we meet up.
Who to kiss (and not to kiss) in Portugal
Beyond my immediate circle of friends in Portugal, I’m at a loss. I either hold back when I probably shouldn’t, or dish out kisses like they’re going out of fashion.
I’ve ended up kissing the builder on a few occasions – he’s also a neighbour so the boundaries are a bit blurry – but now that he’s not working at our house and we see him very rarely, it feels awkward and inappropriate to kiss him when we do meet so I’ve gone back to just saying hello.
Even that feels weird though, as though we’ve dropped back from a level of intimacy that should never have been there. Don’t get me wrong, there was never any hint of ‘intimate’ relations, and I have no idea what his thoughts are on this.
Hopefully, it’s just me that feels slightly uncomfortable at perhaps having overstepped the boundaries and then retreated. Hopefully, if he’s even noticed, he’ll have put it down to the fact that I’m foreign and don’t know any better.
It’s not just the builder that I have problems with. I used to teach English as a foreign language and Parents’ Day was always fraught with uncomfortable situations. Most parents are content to play along with the ‘Britishness’ of a handshake as a greeting but some lean in for the kissy business.
Should men exchange cheek kisses in Portugal?
Within the heterosexual community at least, it seems that when men greet each other, a handshake is the norm. Add in a manly arm grasp or even a hug depending on the depth of the relationship.
When should men cheek kiss women in Portugal?
Agian, this still confuses me slightly. My current understanding is that the general rule of thumb is ‘only if the woman initiates’ but that’s not always been my experience. It also feels uncomfortable as a woman to be with a group of mixed gender business associates who are exchanging kisses and then not to offer up my cheek to a man I don’t know and haven’t been introduced to. There’s often a moment of awkwardness and hesitation, followed by (on my part) a wondering if I did the right thing, whether I did the kissy thing or not.
If I can, I prefer to offer a handshake to men I don’t actually know.
Which side do you kiss first?
It took quite a while for me to work out which side of the face to aim for to avoid awkward clashes, and to be honest, I couldn’t tell you which one it is. That’s partly because I am left / right dyslexic, which leads to frantic pointing across the windscreen when I’m navigating as in “Go that way,” and partly because I’ve taken a Zen approach to choosing a side, which seems to be working well.
I think it’s right…
The problem with kissing parents and business aquaintances, I’ve found, is knowing what level of physical contact is appropriate. Am I supposed to air kiss, or lightly brush each cheek? Do I touch their shoulder or arm or just keep my hands to myself? Any advice is more than welcome!
In some ways, the kissing dilemma was worse with the students. In the UK, there’s no way a teacher would kiss a student. It would be grounds for dismissal in the land of Child Protection Laws. So I’d find it difficult, especially at the start of the first term, trying to evade the lips of the eight and nine-year-olds who wanted to kiss me goodbye after class.
Sometimes their parents would bring them along to Parents’ Day meetings and when the children offered their cheeks up for a kiss, I obliged. But only in front of their parents.
So help me out, please. If you can tell me who, when and how I should be kissing socially in Portugal, please leave a comment.
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very helpful, thanks! But what the situation in lockdown in Portugal now? Is it banned? What about with close friends, family and children?
No kissing or hugging at the moment, just elbow bumps. Except for people you share a house with.
Yes it is confusing and changes accordingly to the region and situation you are in, so I’ll try to be generic but organized:
Professional acquaintances: a mere hand shake is enough through out the process.
Exceptions: if you happen to get friends with along the time, or you happen to be related to.
Daily life acquaintances: postman/lady, grocery shop, butcher, bakery, etc, a vivid hello and the usual small talk of daily life.
Exceptions: with time your hairdresser or beauty lady, can pass from the standard vivid hello to the standard air cheek kisses. Your physician usually follows the same style although you great with a handshake first… your account bank manager, lawyer, etc. follows this ‘rule’
Neighbours: the Daily acquaintance approach and depending on the level of proximity you create with them, they can reach the friends level, but always in mind that they are the neighbours. This because you might need their help and theirs yours.
Exceptions: unless the neighbour is very kept to himself and sharing is not his thing.
Work colleagues: usually gets the regular good day, etc and a handshake, but women that work for a long period together greet themselves with two cheek kisses, and handshake man
Friends and friends of friends: 2 cheek kisses (in the air or not depends on the level of friendship), the one kiss in the cheek can either represent a distant friendship or a close one, but usually is adopted by posh foxes.
Family: 2 cheek kisses and hugging and handshakes (this last one if you are not blood related like son in law to other family man, with exception to women that always give 2 cheek kisses).
The measuring level for all of this is the level of proximity or closeness of most of the times and not much the intimacy per si. And the pace of the proximity levels changes from city to city, region to region and evolves differently because of that. But one thing is for sure, Portuguese people do know that it is difficult to understand all of this at first and will give you time to adjust. But they will expect for you to comply, it is a matter of acknowledging the habits and specifically the culture.
(I believe i’m not wrong on this)
Thank you, Maria, for such a detailed and helpful response.
I was posting a thorough explanation when it all vanished. Heck!
Use good common sense: all for “air kisses”: 1 if you’re posh 2 if you don’t care about not being. Don’t kiss strangers that were not introduced to you by friends or relatives unless they’re children. Women, in socially formal situations, shouldn’t give a hand first or jump on a men’s neck and kiss his cheeks. No plumbers, postman, milkman….and so on and so forth. Unless you’re friends with them.
About protocol etiquette and titles: no BAs don’t get “Doctor” not even Dr. Older degrees (not awarded anymore) 4-5 years licentiate, 4 years Masters, 5-6 years doctorates can have have a short Dr. (former cases) and “Doctor” for the later. Bologna degrees are only entitled to Dr. at PhD levels. Bologna system is similar to the British degrees system and it is, in every way, very different from the one that existed before. As for the rest a good command of etiquette is a sign of a good upbringing an a way of keeping social relation under some control (otherwise people may land on your lap or sofa).
PS – learning the language will make you much more skilled at dealing with these issues and will make you “more clever” in social situations.
Hi Teresa, thanks for taking the time to explain the differences, especially with qualifications, another source of mystery for me until now.
Very interesting topic. We have just spent our first 6 months in a mountain village in the extreme North where there are some differences in the culture from the Algarve!
I have always taken the view that to kiss someone who didn’t expect it is much less of a faux-pas than seeming reluctant to someone who thinks they have a close relationship with one.
Next topic? Lets have some thoughts on who is plain Sra. and who gets the full Sra. Donna!
Our Spanish teacher who is trying to teach us Portugese, is keen to impresss upon us that anyone who has a university degree, especially teachers, North of Lisbon certainly will expect the honorific “doctor” even if they have just a pass BA.
It amazes me how proficient the social elite are at reading what I always thought of as especially British class indicators. Kissing is just the start of a whole world of opportunities for the foreigner to get really embarrassed!
Great blog and great contributions from readers…
Thanks for taking the time to comment, Patrick. I work in Coimbra so know exactly what you mean about the confusing titles. They are extremely important here and I confess, I still haven’t fully got to grips with them – how am I supposed to tell by looking at someone that they have a degree?!
Hi Julie! This is a great post.
I’m a Portuguese expat in Scotland, who had to get used to handshakes and refrain chirpy kisses, so I can understand how awkward it is for you to decide when to kiss or not.
I usually do it left first – with family, friends or friends of friends that are introduced to me. When going to the doctor, or meeting with someone important (a boss, a bank manager…) the handshake is preferred.
Some posh people only kiss once, almost avoiding to touch your cheeks, that seems a bit selfish. Would they be afraid of ruining their make up? For a nice beijinho you should be close enough to give and receive kisses in your cheeks.
There is a superstition about kissing: If you kiss only once you’ll remain single, if you always kiss twice you’ll marry!
Beijinhos desde a Escócia!
Ha ha, Teresa! I know exactly what you mean about the posh air kisses – I get a lot of those from parents, especially the heavily made-up designer mums. I’ve always wondered why they bother and it makes me feel very clumsy when I land a kiss on their cheeks and all they do is blow one in the direction of my ear. Beijinhos to you, too!
Julie, I hope this might help you.
As you mentioned, kissing is like a hand shake and it is done from right to left by both parties at about the same time.
Usually it is the senior person who initiates the greeting. The other person awaits that one micro second to follow instructions. A senior person can be described by age, status and gender (female).
One does not usually kiss strangers or acquaintances or someone introduced by a casual friend.
It is appropriate to kiss someone new when both parties have been properly introduced by a long standing mutual friend and as you said, or after you have known that person for a long time.
Please remember that the kissing greeting in the Portuguese culture is a strictly platonic gesture, just like a handshake is in yours for instances, and it means nothing to the males (culturally programmed).
Thank you for taking the time to clarify the situation for me and my readers. I still get mothers I’ve only just met on Parents’ Days leaning in for a kiss though!
That is a complement and it means they approve of you and their kids also like you.
On that situation my oldest sister (also a teacher) says cheek to cheek and kiss the air.
They are very expressive people as you probably know by now and if they did not approve of you, they would also express it it by acting snobbish and not not greeting you in that manner.
As someone else suggested, ask other teachers or your local friends
That’s good to know! Now I feel flattered rather than confused 🙂
Great post! I can strongly relate to your story as I am half Portuguese and half Italian, I grew up in Germany and now I live in the US. I have experienced a variety of different types of social kissing, hugging, handshaking. What is the big problem with cheek kissing…which side to kiss first. Italians kiss the right cheek, Portuguese kiss the left cheek first..or viceversa..I am getting confused right now…not knowing exactly which side to kiss first can lead to some funny confusion.
In both countries, you would kiss only relatives and friends or people you already met before. Never strangers or people you are meeting for the first time. With coworkers, in school with your classmates (usually never with teachers), or with people you meet every single day, it is not necessary to cheek kiss every time you meet.
In the United States, where I live, cheek kissing is very rare, only very close friends would do it, or people that lived outside the US. Usually you would hug your friends to greet them, but I find that hugging a person is even more intimate than just a cheek kiss, don’t you think?
Um beijinho do Maine!
It’s all so confusing, isn’t it?! I agree with you about hugging though – only special people get those 🙂
thank you for “K is for Kissing”
Good choice this, having been in the travel business I found that it was always confusing whether to kiss or not to kiss when meeting clients for the first time at the airport. You felt like you knew them well by the time they arrived as you had been communicating via email usually for weeks and they usually felt the same way but yes, the Dutch would be 3 times, the French and Italians 2 times and the Brits were always a handshake but then a kiss when they left 🙂
Hi! Just came across your blog a few days ago and I’m really enjoying it! I’m Portuguese and have been living in Canada for a few years. It’s really hard to tell what is the right thing to do. Whenever I go there I find myself in the same situation… Kissing in both cheeks used to be for family and close friends in special occasions or whenever you were away. Now I go there and people want to kiss all the time, even the ones that I’m not friends with. You don’t want to hurt their feelings but sometimes it’s best to just say in a nice way that you’re not used to that. It also depends on where you live in Portugal, people tend to be very different from region to region. With a friendly smile just say no, thank you!
Thanks for your advice. It’s reassuring to know that even Portuguese people have their doubts about social kissing!
Nice story but the first thing that came up in my mind is this: Why not ask the locals? Do as the locals do.
I remember a frase: “W’re in Rome so do as the Romans do”
We offten visit the Algarve for more than 10 years and became friends with local people. When w’re arriving again we kiss the landlady of our appartment, I kiss the waiter of our favorite restaurant, my husband shakes his hand en embrase him, we kiss our other friends, 1 kiss each side of the face, sometimes a proper kiss and sometimes an airkiss. But just 2 kisses not more.
In Holland, where we come from, they kisses you 3 times, left,right,left and I don’t like that.
2 cheeks=2 kisses. Usually they want to kiss us than 3 times and we step back with a laugh and say that we have 2 cheeks so 2 kisses is okay.
But again: ask the locals, I certainly know that they like to help you out, the Portugese people are such nice and kind people and they appriciate it very much that you will fit in there habits!
Thanks, Lotus, By writing this post, I’m hoping that the Portuguese readers of this blog will step in and provide the answers to my dilemmas.
The most confusing one for me at the moment is the appropriate level of contact for the kisses I wasn’t expecting. When I see that someone’s coming at me for a kiss, I follow their lead to reciprocate but I can’t tell, from my experience so far, whether I’m supposed to air kiss or not, and whether or not to touch the person.
For my personal experience… Always air-kiss. I am portuguese and the only lips-to-cheek kisses i feel confortable with are with family….. A exception are some very close friend you dont see for a very long time. Being a male i dont feel confortable in getting lips-to-cheek kisses from other males, but if it is family i wait for the first and then reply accordingly (?) on the second… hehehhehe
Always good to hear what Portuguese people recommend in these situations, Rui.
I had to laugh at this post. In Australia I always feel a bit dumb if I kiss someone straight away (as I was used to), as here people just stand there and say hello, and don´t even shake hands… A South African friend who moved to Portugal once kissed the postman who knocked on her door to deliver a parcel. He must have got the shock of his life! I wonder if he thought she was throwing herself at him or if he asked to be transferred to avoid that “strange” woman.
Well Julie I never kissed my kids teachers, I kissed friends, family, women who were introduced to me, but the first time a man was introduced generally he got a handshake and sometimes at the end when saying goodbye he might get a kiss. People you see on a daily basis don´t usually get kissed daily, at least I only kissed ones that I saw maybe weekly. Co-workers generally don´t get kissed, but workmen or delivery men certainly don´t get kissed.
As for the side, I always go to their left side first and never had a problem. Good luck with that one!
Thanks for the tips, Sami. It’s good to know that I’m not just ‘being too British’ in feeling awkward when parents try to kiss me. It is only women, I have to say. The dads stick to handshakes 🙂 And I’ll leave the workmen alone from now on!
By the way, we Brits only usually do handshakes in formal, business like situations. In a less formal setting, we do what the Aussies do and just say hello unless it’s a very close friend.
Best to be British – just back off if someone foreign moves in with a kiss threat and pretend to be distracted by something else!
Good post – good subject pick!
Ideally, I would, but it’s a bit tricky when it’s my students’ parents – I don’t want to cause offence 🙂
In that case just go for the full snog…
Are you trying to get me sacked?! 😉
oh I was SO hoping your post would answer all my social dilemmas!! Glad I’m not the only one who has kissed a builder! (painter / decorator in my case – and he is a family friend of our neighbour – and the neighbour would definitely be classed as a friend…. oh heck! even I’m confused now!!! ??)
My only advice is to hover a bit and see if the person is aiming towards your cheek – and then respond accordingly!!! 😉
Good to know I’m not the only one, Alyson and Nicky! I hope someone can sort us out in the comments 🙂
Oh, Julie, I’m so with you on this one and will look forward to reading future comments! I haven’t yet sussed out the correct procedure either – is it right cheek first, or left? And in some parts of the world, it’s twice each side! My most embarrassing encounter was only a few weeks ago, when I misjudged it completely and ended up kissing someone full on the lips when they moved their head – thankfully it was someone I knew very well and we both saw the funny side! x
Made me laugh too! The ‘which side first’ issue is a bit like trying to work out which way to turn the steering wheel when I’m reversing. If I have to think about it, I get it all wrong so it’s better to just try not to think about it and see what happens.
love it. glad to know I’m not the only one who over kisses a situationx