Sometimes we all need a shirt like this… Image source

One of the first things that most visitors to Brazil notice is that Brazilians greet each other with a kiss on the cheek (one or two, depending on the region). And most of us ex-pats get used to that pretty quickly.

But the REAL problem is…

How do you greet someone from your OWN COUNTRY when you meet them IN BRAZIL?

Among fellow ex-pats or long-term visitors, it’s no problem. We kiss. But there are other situations where it’s not so clear-cut. One day, Christian and I were walking home when we ran into an American girl who we knew casually from capoeira. The girl’s mother was visiting, and she called us over to introduce us.

Knowing that not every American is comfortable with invasion of their face space immediately upon meeting someone, and not knowing how “Brazilianized” the mother had become on her short visit, I went for a handshake. The mother took my hand and shook it – but then pulled me in for a kiss. I was taken by surprise, but went with the flow and gave her the classic Bahian double-cheek kiss.

(Just to make things clear for anyone who hasn’t been to Brazil – go for their right cheek first. That means start to your left. You can thank me later after you’ve avoided the really awkward situation of going to the wrong side and nearly nailing the other person on the lips.)

Later, Christian laughed at me: “Why were you all stiff and distant? Did you not want to kiss the girl’s mother?”

Me: “I was trying to respect the mother since I didn’t know if she was comfortable with kissing me, since that’s not what we do in the States!”

Christian: “But we are not in the States.”

Me: “I know, but some Americans like their personal space and would be weirded out by an attempt at a kiss, and since I didn’t know how uptight (or not) this woman was, I decided to err on the side of not kissing.”

Christian: ::shrug::

Later that week, I was walking back from the grocery store when I ran into a friend who had been at our wedding. Not wanting to be the “cold” American, and figuring I was on safe ground since he was Brazilian, I went for the cheek kiss – and almost collided with his outstretched hand. He had been going for the handshake. I was already too close, but he is taller and didn’t stoop down to kiss me – so we ended up doing a weird half-hug.

  • I know, it’s weird. I just go for the kiss. What’s even more awkward is that in Rio, you do the two kisses. So without fail, I’m auto-programmed to do two kisses, which means in Sao Paulo that I am unconsciously chasing down the person for that second kiss on the other cheek or smashing into their face as I cross over. Although, I think you were right in just being safe and respecting the space.

    • Shayna

      Yes! I had that problem too when I moved from Sao Carlos (SP) to Bahia. I’ve had *some* guys attempt to persuade me that it’s really THREE kisses. Um, no. Two is plenty!

  • Oh no! The awkward half-hug! My wife’s aunt married a German guy who now lives here in Rio, and although we have both gone a *bit* native, we’ve done the awkward huggy-patting thing a few times. Now I just straight-out shake his hand – as northern Europeans who don’t know each other that well I think it’s more natural for us both.

    Great post, very observant. It’s funny when people try to second guess each other!

    • Shayna

      Actually, the cheek kiss doesn’t happen between Brazilian men – at least not from what I’ve observed. Usually I see a handshake and a shoulder-clapping hug.

      What would be even awkwarder is if two people tried to second-guess each other, and then noticed and both reverted to their first option, then switched again – like when you pass someone in a hallway and both try to dodge to the same side multiple times!

      • Yeah, we don’t go for the kiss – but for us both, even the Brazilian clappy-hug thing feels a bit weird. We both do it with other Brazilian guys, but it just feels a bit contrived when we tried it with each other! Ah, it’s such a minefield!

  • I think it’s the worst between Brazilian men who work for my husband. I think they are trying to be respectful in front of him but we have been here for so long that I dive right into the kisskiss. Awkward just doesn’t even describe it sometimes!

    • Shayna

      Funny! Professional or semi-professional relationships are weird. I’m never sure what to do with my students. I ran into a fellow (female) teacher in the mall, and the kisskiss went naturally. But I’ve encountered a male student who clearly wasn’t comfortable with it.

  • cecilia butcher


  • This happens sometimes with my Portuguese teachers. They usually want to do the kiss thing, but I forget and sometimes might come across as a mean son of a b*tch, which is not my intention.

    I mean, hugging here is pushing it. I have never hugged any other professors other than my Portuguese teachers.

    One time I hugged and did the kiss thing with my Brazilian friend (the girl from Recife) that was in the hallway while I was talking to my Portuguese teacher, and my teacher asked me why I never hug and kiss her (in a jovial way). I then promptly went over to my teacher and planted a big wet one right on her lips.

    Ok that last sentence was a lie, but now we hug/kiss more often.

  • great article, really funny and interesting! thank you for sharing