cheek-kissing as a greeting at work

A reader writes:

I’m an IT manager for a small company. I have two direct reports, a man and a woman. I myself am a man. The three of us share an office, which is a separate room from the main operations area.

Up to three to four times a week, we have other employees who come in to speak to us. After entering the room, they will greet all three of us. It’s a courteous handshake and a good morning for me and my male employee, but a kiss on both cheeks (European style) for my female employee. She doesn’t mind and hasn’t raised any concerns.

In all my 20 years of working in eight different companies, I’ve never seen this happen in a work environment. It has always been a nod in the person’s direction with a “good morning” or “hi” or a handshake.

At social events, such as Christmas dinners or team-building days out, it happens all the time and I DON’T find it weird because since it’s a social event, it’s more relaxed and less formal. At work, I find it weird and uncomfortable.

It’s other managers and the directors who do the cheek-kissing thing when they see her at the start of the week. I don’t know why I have this uncomfortable feeling, but I have some theories.

Maybe it’s because it takes longer to complete the greeting and there’s an awkward wait for it to finish? 99% of the time, they came to talk to me anyway but I have to wait for them to finish their greeting and walk around to my desk.

Maybe it’s the sounds of the “mwah mwah” they make?

Maybe it feels like they see her as the baby of the family and it makes it harder for me (psychologically) to push her to work as hard as both myself and my other employee. We’re all in our 40s, by the way.

I don’t entertain sexist or misogynistic views, nor would I tolerate them, but has this cheek-kissing thing clouded my judgment? This employee might be leaving soon and I don’t want the cheek-kissing thing to prejudice my hiring of a replacement by leaning towards a male hire.

I mean, the “mwah mwah” noises alone would give you sufficient reason to be uncomfortable with this. Eeeww.

But more to the point, it’s not cool to treat the women differently than the men in professional settings. If all involved are fine with doing that socially, then cool. But in a professional context like your office, it’s weird to single the woman out for her own special Greeting For Ladies.

It’s worth asking your employee privately whether she’s okay with this practice, and offering to shut it down on her behalf if she’s not. You say that she doesn’t mind and hasn’t raised any concerns, but lots of people do feel uncomfortable with things they haven’t spoken up about, often because they’re afraid to make things awkward if they say something. As her boss, you’re in a good position to say, “Hey, I’ve noticed Bob and Fergus kiss you on the cheek when they greet you, which they don’t do to the rest of us. If that ever makes you feel uncomfortable, I can speak with them privately to get it to stop, and I can ensure it won’t be awkward for you.” It’s possible she’ll tell you she’s just fine with it — but it’s also possible she’ll be grateful for the help.

It’s also really, really important that you strive not to see her differently as the result of other people’s behavior toward her. She’s not the baby of the family — she’s an adult woman who’s fielding gender-specific behavior directed her way by people above her in rank. Don’t let that impact the way you see her or how you manage her (other than by asking if she wants your help in changing what’s happening).

Similarly, you can’t let a desire to avoid more cheek-kissing bias you against future women hires. That would be illegal and unethical, and you just can’t do it. If you seriously worry it might influence your thinking (although I think you might be being a little tongue-in-cheek there — and what a gross expression that is in this context), you’ve got to resolve to work that through in your head before you embark on future hiring.

{ 258 comments… read them below }

  1. Anon Anon*

    I’m assuming the LW is based in the UK or Europe, given that he mentioned that the cheek kissing thing happens during social occasions.

    I am based in the US, I have a c-suite who I see a couple times a year who always kisses me on the cheek. As he does most of the women. It doesn’t bother me, but I can see how it would bother some people. So following Alison’s advice of discussing it with your direct report would be a good idea. I was never warned about the c-suite employee who kisses women on the cheek when he see’s them, and to be honest, if I wasn’t okay with this sort of thing I wouldn’t have known what to do. I wouldn’t have raised it with my boss.

    1. Kit*

      LW could be Canadian. There’s huge regional variability in whether we cheek kiss, but some of us do.

      1. Tara*

        As a Canadian, never seen that happen. I was thinking that even though LW doesn’t see a probably with it at social events, I’d have a problem with that part too. In general, I actually think that while Canadians can be seen as very friendly and polite, most of us have a thing about personal space.

        1. Lemon Zinger*

          I had a friend from Montreal who does it. I get the impression that it’s much more common in Quebec.

        2. Cristina in England*

          Cheek kissing is very common in Montreal, and I have seen it adopted there by a very many non-Quebecois Canadians.

      1. Anon Anon*

        I don’t know about the work place there, but it’s the most common form of greeting I receive there when visiting family, at social occasions, etc.

        1. SarahKay*

          Family, yes, it’s become pretty common in the UK. At work? Oh, NOOOOOO. In twenty years at work I’ve never had that happen, and would be utterly shocked if someone tried it. Also, you know, very unimpressed, especially if it only happened to the women.

      2. Bonky*

        I’m in the UK, and I’m a woman in a senior position. I can assure you it is! (Doesn’t bother me, but I don’t dismiss the rights of others to be bothered by it.)

      3. DanaScully*

        I would disagree with this one – I think it’s very much a UK thing. Or at least it is where I live! I kiss my family and friends to say hello and goodbye. I would never kiss anyone in a work setting unless it was a special occasion (such as when we’re all leaving the office for the Christmas break or someone is leaving).

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Same—this was my experience with close female coworkers in New England and CA (although we also are overly huggy in California).

        1. BananaPants*

          I’d be shocked if people did this in New England. We’re reserved Yankees who don’t even know our own neighbors half the time – no one kisses cheeks as a greeting.

          1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            I lived in New England, and people did it. Not everyone—primarily ethnic white communities, and only when they knew someone very well, and only between women (and never WASPs). But it was certainly not common or a majority practice.

      2. anoncmntr*

        In Miami, *everyone* cheek kisses, I swear. It makes me so uncomfortable! (I’m a recent transplant).

        1. Former Retail Manager*

          I find this super interesting. I had NO IDEA! I am hoping to visit Miami for the first time ever in about another year. I’ll definitely keep an eye out, although I don’t think this sort of thing would befall me in a tourist situation. And I too would be uncomfortable….it just seems odd to me.

          1. Paige Turner*

            FWIW, I’m from Ft. Lauderdale, 20-30 miles north, and this is not a thing there.
            Miami is different :)

        2. The Other Dawn*

          UGH. I would truly hate living there, then, because I hate the cheek kiss greeting. I also hate hugs as a greeting. So, yeah, Miami has been crossed off my list of possible places to live.

        3. hayling*

          I went to Miami at age 18 to stay with some girls I’d met on a summer program. They had very good-looking male friends and I thought the cheek-kissing was amazing!

        4. Suzy Q*

          I can confirm this. It’s a Latin thing in Miami and bleeds into work. I moved from there ten months ago and very happy I did (for many reasons)!

      3. A grad student*

        Really? I grew up in Miami, and two people touching cheeks together while making a single kiss noise was generally what was done for female-female and male-female greetings (made me super uncomfortable when I first moved there!), I never saw anyone kiss on both cheeks. I always thought that was a European thing.

    2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      I think this may be cultural. I work with populations where it would be considered rude to shake a woman’s hand instead of the cheek kissing (although this is really more of a kissing the air motion). I think my clients would be ok with hand shakes instead, but at the beginning of our relationship this would have created a significant trust barrier—like here I am imposing “white” businesses practices that subordinate or ignore their custom/norms. (I did a non-scientific experiment using hand shakes with one set of clients and air kisses with another, and it had an immediate negative impact). All that said, I was in a position of relative privilege/power, so perhaps the more important takeaway was that I needed to treat people how they want to be treated. And we don’t know if OP’s report is indifferent or resigned to putting up with this or if she would prefer this greeting.

      Normally I agree that this is not professional/appropriate in most white-collar workplaces, particularly because of the differential treatment on the basis of gender presentation. (Aside: although it’s bizarrely common in the academy—almost like folks are importing overseas norms to show how cosmopolitan and worldly they are).

      1. A Canadian*

        It’s definitely cultural. I live in Montreal and the norm here is that two men shake hands, two women cheek kiss, and usually a man and a woman will cheek kiss but a handshake can suffice. Mainly in francophone circles – anglos are more likely to just shake hands, regardless of gender. It’s also more common to do between friends, rather than at the workplace (though I work at primarily English-speaking offices, can’t speak for the French ones). I don’t have a problem with it, but I can see how someone not used to the practice could find it odd.

        1. Another Canadian*

          Fellow anglo-Montrealer here, and I concur. And I would add, since I work in a very mixed English/French work setting: cheek-kissing at work only happens at work social events or if you’re greeting a colleague (esp. a peer) whom you haven’t seen in awhile (think away on vacation, or visiting from another location) and you’re obviously happy to see them. Or if it’s someone’s birthday. Or they got a promotion. That sort of thing. But it happens only in the hallway/in your office, not in a meeting. That would be weird. (Interesting how these unwritten rules are so subtle, yet so precise!)

      2. Petra*

        OMG, thank you for that “aside.” I work at an American college, and one colleague in particular likes to greet people with a loud kiss on the cheek. I don’t like it (especially because she did it to me even though we don’t particularly like each other), and have indicated that through non-response. Though she has stopped kissing me (except once blowing me a kiss across a table), she has upped the frequency and loudness of kissing others–as if she’s making an even bigger show in my presence. I find myself making involuntary faces. I wonder if academics can get away with more social eccentricities than people in the business world.

    3. LabHeather*

      I don’t think the LW is Europe-based, given that they refer to these kisses as “European style”, which gave me a start. I have never *Ever* experienced this in a work setting, neither in Norway or in the UK. I would be completely flabbergasted if it did.

      Europe is not one culture, just like Africa isn’t. Lots of different cultures and not to mention professional norms in different industries!

  2. Expat*

    In the Netherlands, where I live, it’s customary to greet each other with not two, but THREE cheek-kisses. After 12 years, I’m still not used to it. It only adds insult to injury that men frequently opt to shake hands instead, but women get the kisses regardless of the gender of the opposite party.

    I’ve tried a step backwards and an intersecting outstretched hand, but people will often just take my hand and lean in anyway. I hate it. By and large I write it off as a cultural incompatibility and tolerate the kisses, but I wish I didn’t have to.

    1. Expat*

      As an addendum, when I brought this up with Dutch friends and coworkers, they commented that they find the American custom of hugging to be much more uncomfortable, since it involves full-body contact. I reserve hugging for close friends only, but everyone had a story about an awkward American stranger-hug. Norms differ. *shrug*

      1. Gazebo Slayer (formerly I'm a Little Teapot)*

        In my experience as an American, hugging is definitely not a normal greeting in the workplace. In some – but far from all – situations and subcultures it’s fine in a social context. Seldom between strangers, except in some very hippie-dippy or eccentric circles. (I’ve gotten stranger hugs at folk music festivals and SFF/gaming/comics/anime conventions, but that’s about it.) Hugging tends to vary from individual to individual too – some people will hug anybody who lets them and some people never even hug their closest friends.

        IME, Americans don’t hug in the workplace unless (1) they have an unusually close relationship with that coworker, (2) the person being hugged is leaving that workplace permanently and it’s a goodbye hug, or (3) the workplace is dysfunctional or downright creepy. (Though I’m in Massachusetts, a region with a reputation for being standoffish; it might vary by region.)

        1. Amber T*

          New Yorker here, and American to American, anything more than a handshake as a greeting or goodbye seems bizarre to me. Certain coworkers in other departments occasionally will work with foreign companies, and they get a crash course in traditions and customs, which I always find interesting.

          (The one time a coworker hugged me was when I was going through an unknown scary medical thing and was asking her to cover for me when I started crying . We’re close and friendly so it wasn’t weird. Only reason I started crying is because I feel comfortable with her – didn’t cry when I was explaining it to my boss.)

        2. MWKate*

          I’m in the upper Midwest and I think we are generally described as a pretty warm part of the country – hugging here except in the circumstances you mentioned would be weird.

        3. TL -*

          Texas is a super huggy culture compared to MA (one of the best things about moving to Boston was that people STOPPED RANDOMLY HUGGING ME) but honestly, even in Texas, it was always in social situations, never at work.
          And I’d rather be hugged than kissed (or air kissed) so I think I would freak out more if someone tried to kiss me at work, whereas a celebratory hug with my coworkers has happened once or twice and been okay by me.

          1. Texas Transplant*

            Hugging is very much a Texas thing and even after 30 years, I hate it!! I find it terribly awkward when clients or people I barely know lean in to hug me, especially in a business setting; and my body language gives me away every time! Now there are co-workers & acquaintances who intentionally try to hug me while announcing, “I know you hate to be hugged!” I love hugging in family settings NOT in business settings! It’s so inappropriate. Just shake my hand as if I were a guy! I guess I’ll have to consider moving to MA.

            1. Tongue Cluckin' Grammarian*

              Oh, cats. Those super-huggy people that are all “I’m a hugger, so you just have to accept it!” upset me so much. With the ones that assume my desire not to be hugged is just shyness, I’ve had to outright say to them “Your need to hug does not override my desire not to be touched. Do not hug me.” in a very serious tone. Some finally got it, one got huffy and defensive, but in general it’s better.

              I’m also in Texas and see the hugging thing so very much. I cringe.

        4. Perse's Mom*

          I’ve hugged a few coworkers, but it was people I have worked or do work closely with AND as much of our workforce is scattered around the country, these are also people I will see in person at best once every few years, and perhaps only once ever.

        5. Gabriela*

          I think there are some regional differences as well. I am in the south and while I wouldn’t say it’s customary to hug business colleagues or partners, I am always prepared for it.

        6. (another) b*

          It could depend on region – I’m also in a Northeast city and I want NO contact with ANYONE.

        7. Anon Anon*

          I think this is very industry dependent. I work in an industry where it’s not uncommon to hug. I’m not a hugger, but I usually have to laugh it off saying that I’m not a hugger.

          1. Breda*

            Same – I work in a predominantly female, very social industry where relationships are paramount, and while handshakes are normal for first meetings, hugs goodbye are common after that. While I’m not opposed to hugging, I am an austere New Englander, so it took a while for me to adjust!

          2. tigerlily*

            Industry dependent for sure, and also just people dependent. My boss is a HUGGER. We’re interviewing for a new position and we did a second interview for one particular candidate yesterday and she told him as he was walking into the meeting room “I feel like I want to hug you!” And she did.

            Me, I’m not much of a hugger.

        8. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          Ha! California is rife with hugging. Usually not strangers, but oftentimes with nonprofit organizations that do grassroots organizing (especially in Northern California and parts of the SJV), hugging is the norm once you’ve established a working relationship (but it’s a huge boundaries violation in all other contexts). LA does the air kiss, but I think that’s an effect of industry norms “spilling over” to non-industry worth places.

          1. Aveline*

            Lived in California for over 2 decades. Was never, ever hugged. Not even when working in the SJW community in NoCal. Nor was I ever air kissed in SoCal. Not even by “industry types.”

            Live in the South now. Get hugged by strangers upon introduction a LOT.

            My experience is totally at odds with yours.

            I think it has more to do with your social circle than where you live in the USA.

            1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

              I don’t know if it’s social circle, but it’s certainly possible that we have significantly different experiences based on the sectors/organizations with which we’re interacting—there are certainly different norms even among social justice organizations. I was pretty deep in the SF and East Bay social justice community, but again—hugging was very much limited to organizations with deep community organizing practices. It was not common for direct service providers or for “white-collar” and policy groups, and it was never ok to hug strangers.

              LA was a mixed bag. When you say “SoCal,” are you referring to Los Angeles, or the broader region? Because it seemed like it was super common in areas where there are lots of industry folks (e.g., Hollywood, Los Feliz, West LA) but not in regions like the San Gabriel Valley, Glendale, or even Compton/South Gate.

        9. Former Retail Manager*

          Texan here….in the workplace it’s mostly strictly handshakes unless it’s a small company, in which case hugging might sneak in there. What you’ve said about hugging in the workplace is pretty spot on, even here. Socially, is a whole different ballgame. A lot of females here (I am female) LOVE to hug. I don’t indulge them regardless of how long I’ve known them or how close we are. Males here seem to either shake hands or indulge in manly “bro-hugs.”

        10. BananaPants*

          American here, in southern New England, and in 14 years of work post-college I can remember one hug – from my longtime mentor when I shared with him that I was pregnant with my second baby. And it was a grandfatherly side hug rather than a full-on hug.

      2. Michele*

        Recently my husband met a male friend of mine who hugged him. He was completely thrown off by it and afterward said something to the effect of he was going to have to put a stop to that. I laughed because he has no idea how often women have to put up with men thinking that a hug is an acceptable greeting.

        1. Broke Law Student*

          My boyfriend and I were recently at a social event where my friend’s male fiance hugged him. They’d met once before, briefly, and he commented later that it was weird/unexpected. I had the same feeling!

      3. VroomVroom*

        I HATE the American stranger hug. I much prefer the European air-kiss thing. 3 is excessive, sure, but two quick air kisses is so SO preferred by me over the full-body awkward hug.

        At work, I like the handshake obviously, but I often am the only woman in a group and will sometimes get hugged by men in a professional setting. It’s OK if I know them well and haven’t seen them in a while (the know them well tends to be correlated by age/job level – if they’re close to my age/are more like a peer it doesn’t make me uncomfortable) but if it’s a man I don’t know very well and/or is much more senior to me it makes me uncomfortable.

        I’m born-and-bred American but I studied abroad in Europe and fell in love with the greeting style. I wish, in my personal life, that I could use that instead of hugging. Professionally, I wish everyone would handshake!

      4. LBK*

        Do Americans hug a lot of strangers? I sure don’t…the only time I’d hug someone I didn’t know previously is if I were being introduced to a friend of a friend that I’d at least heard of, or with whom I had a very close relationship with our mutual friend, so they end up getting kind of a “transitive property” hug.

        1. Michele*

          “Transitive property” hug. Yep. I’m stealing that phrase.
          I try to avoid it when meeting friends of friends (I don’t even like to hug my friends that much) but when meeting soon-to-be-in-laws or something similar, it is unavoidable.

        2. KatiePie*

          I am also stealing the “transitive property hug” phrase. I’ve received these hugs. I never instigate, but don’t mind reciprocating if the other person initiates. It’s a way of saying, “you are an important person to this person who is important to me.”

          Since it’s interesting to see where this kind of hugging culture abides, I’m in CA. I would say the transitive property hug is not at all the norm, but is common enough not to be totally weird.

        3. Chomps*

          Ha! I rarely get stranger hugs. the only one I can think of was when the now-wife of a close and life-long friend hugged me when I met her. It was definitely a transitory property type of hug.

        4. Koko*

          There are definitely social environments I step into where hugging seems expected. I’m not a hugging type of person myself, at least not these days, but I was many years ago. I sometimes find myself doing an awkward one-arm hug goodbye with someone I have just met that evening because everyone else is hugging and it establishes a norm.

      5. Chomps*

        I’m an American and I don’t like hugging people I’m not friends with. I don’t like cheek kisses either, so I can relate.

    2. memyselfandi*

      When I lived in Quebec I grew quite fond of the cheek kiss greeting, one on each cheek for a normal acquaintance and a third if you’re close. I also got used to greeting someone verbally every time you saw them in the hallway, not just the first time. When I arrived it seemed invasive. When I left, the world seemed cold.

    3. Former Expat*

      Came here to say just this. when I lived in Switzerland, the three kisses was customary. As a woman I would always get it regardless of the gender of the other person, but many men would just shake hands with other men. If you’re not used to it it may be strange, but I wouldn’t be to quick to get grossed out or judgmental about it.

      1. Expat*

        I think after 12 years, it’s safe to say I will never be used to it.

        I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with kissing as a greeting, it’s just not for me. It’s uncomfortable one-on-one, but nothing fills me with dread like being expected to kiss all 30 of my husband’s relatives at family reunions. At three kisses per relative, that’s 90 kisses. Takes like 20 minutes just to get through the ritual, Lord help me.

        Fortunately, I am not expected to kiss coworkers every time I see them. It’s only upon celebratory events, like birthdays or getting a paper published.

        1. Julia*

          I also lived in Switzerland for two years and never kissed any of my Swiss co-workers. Weird.

      2. Hrovitnir*

        Oh man, regardless of exposure time I will always despise anything that treats me differently because of what I look like. It is certainly one step less awkward than hugs.

        I don’t think the cheek kiss thing is terribly common in NZ but somehow a couple of men I like and respect a lot used to do it and I juuust teetered into “OK, from you” whilst still always sighing internally. One of them was Māori so that could be why in his case, as a cheek kiss can stand in for hongi on the marae and is probably more common in Māori culture.

    4. Julia*

      Same in Switzerland. Not at work – my workplace was Japanese anyhow – as far as I can tell; there I usually got handshakes. But socially – oh boy. Try getting somewhere at a busy train station when people stop dead in front of you to kiss someone three times. Ugh.

  3. ZSD*

    Would it be possible to clarify where this company is? Is it in the US? If so, is it an American company? Are the people doing the cheek-kissing American or of some other nationality?
    I don’t really think the answer affects how the OP should react. I’m just trying to wrap my head around the situation because I’ve never met Americans who do this. Whenever I go to Europe and people do this to me, I totally freeze up and just wait for it to be over. (And yes, I know I’m weird.)

    1. MK*

      I would also be interested to know where all this kissing is happening. I am from Europe, and a culture that is both tactile and informal with strangers and that would be weird.

      1. Chloe Silverado*

        I work in the Miami, FL area and have encountered this in the office. It is not the most common greeting (the vast majority of people shake hands), but I have received the double cheek kiss and/or a hug as a greeting at work from both colleagues and vendors. I hate it, but the one time I mentioned it being inappropriate my coworkers reacted like this was a totally normal practice and I was the weird one!

        1. acmx*

          Every time I visited my vendors in Miami, I usually got the kiss/hug from the leadership/main point of contact but not the general workers I might be introduced to. When I moved to S FL, friends always hugged whenever they saw each other. I hate this practice. It’s so awkward for me.

      2. Lablizard*

        I’m Turkish, we kiss on each cheek after meeting someone once and everyone kisses everyone, except for covered women, they usually only kiss other women, not men

    2. Channel Z*

      Maybe it’s weird, but I do the same thing! I am American in Ireland for 13 yrs, and I was hoping the Anglo speaking countries didn’t do the kissing thing, no such luck. I freeze, because I don’t do it right. Once, I accidentally kissed DH’s great-aunt Nora on the mouth at a wedding. Ever since, I stand still and don’t reciprocate. Good news though, it doesn’t happen at work. But I’m OK with hugging! Which if you think about it, makes no sense because that is a lot more body contact.

      1. Hrovitnir*

        Haha, I also freeze and screw it up every time. Le sigh. (I am less OK with hugging in that that makes me uncomfortable regardless of gendering whereas air/barely touching cheek kisses only make me uncomfortable when it’s gendered.)

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I had assumed — possibly wrongly — that if it were a cultural issue, the OP would have mentioned that. But I’ve emailed him and asked if he’ll clarify.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I have an answer! He says: “I’m in the UK. I’ve worked in Brussels before and it’s a common greeting but I oddly I didn’t find it weird on the continent. However, greeting with a kiss on the cheek is not a standard greeting in England (or at least, I’ve never witnessed it in my career until now).”

        1. VivaVirago*

          I’m in the UK also! It’s not standard here, but it can happen, especially if you’re working internationally. When you do get the air/cheek kissing, I think it does tend to be gendered (I have received that treatment occasionally as a woman, with male colleagues getting handshakes).

          For what it’s worth, I also find it weird in a work context and don’t like it when colleagues do it to me, but it’s often at times (meetings) or from people (senior) where it can be quite hard to challenge in the moment. So I love the advice on this one. And hey, if my boss had ever asked me whether I found it uncomfortable for a senior male colleague to come and pat me on the shoulder from behind to say hello, and offered to sort it, I would have said “YES YES A THOUSAND TIMES YES”. Happily(?) a fair amount of flinch-reactions later, I no longer get shoulder-pats, at least.

        2. MadGrad*

          Okay, but what culture is she from? It may not be as common in the context, but if her background and the report’s background both include this and they’re on particularly friendly terms, I still don’t think it’s necessarily weird.

          1. LBK*

            I think you’re mixing it up a little – the woman *is* the report, and the kissers are an array of their colleagues.

        3. heatherskib*

          It’s also not common, that I’ve seen, for most men to be greeted that way. Occassionally, I’ll have a male greet me that way, but it’s more rare.

    4. AVS*

      Seconding this! I was quite taken aback (to say the least) on my first work trip to a country in Central America when the government officials who greeted my male colleague with a handshake greeted me with the cheek-kiss-touch-thing. I then realized that it was the professional norm to greet women in that way, but greet men with a handshake. (Not that I agree with that, but noting that this country has much more “traditional” gender norms than I’m used to as an American.)

  4. Edith*

    Even in Europe this is not something you do at work, at least not in the part of Europe where I lived (Wallonia), so even if it weren’t sexist it would still be wildly inappropriate.

    1. SophieChotek*

      Yes I was curious if this was appropriate at work in Europe.

      When I visit friends in Europe I expect this greeting (from both men and women) when I first arrive. A few of my friends in the U.S. greet each other this way, but it’s more of an affectation, but since it’s among friends, I can go along with that too.

      At work, though, unless it was a clear cultural norm, I would find it odd. (Especially in U.S. but I’ve seen other commentors already say this experience in the U.S. so what do I know…)

      1. Someone*

        You know, “Europe” is not particularly homogeneous…

        I’m from Germany, and here its custom to simply shake hands. Among younger women hugging is relatively common (at least in the southern region where I grew up – I always hated it) – but it’s definitely not the norm, and kissing is pretty much unheard of.

        But there are definitely other countries where kissing is apparently appropriate. When I was an exchange student* in Hungary, I had to attend the class reunion of the other student’s father (most boring weekend of my entire LIFE), and I will never forget what an elderly men at this reunion asked me: “Darf ich Sie küssen?” (“May I kiss you?”).
        He was the only one to ask – I told him no. Everybody greeted each other by kissing each other’s cheek, but I firmly insisted on a handshake. There are no words for how awkward I felt.

        *The kind of thing where students from one school visit students from another school in another country.

        1. Myrin*

          Yeah, same area and same experience. As I got older, I’ve also definitely observed the young girls/women growing out of the hugging thing with time; I very distinctly remember that it only started in the first place bcause it was seen as dainty and ~fancy~. I see the kiss-the-cheek thing sometimes between middle-aged women, but it’s definitely only when there’s a social relationship between the participants and mostly with people who are a bit flamboyant, if you will.

          1. LabHeather*

            Heh, I’ve been more or less the opposite. There was very little physical contact in my family growing up. When some of my friends in high school started giving me the occasional hug I was stiff as a board and super uncomfortable. I have since learned to like them, especially with a specific type of friends where we will often only meet once or twice a year.

            I have been hugged at work, but it has only been by certain colleagues(1 manager, 2 teachers), never a uniform thing, and only in relation to leaving/coming back (I was gone 3 months in summer when they had no work for me, and came back in autumn).

        2. miss_chevious*

          Yeah, the “continent” is a large place. In my former position, our French and Spanish colleagues of both sexes would do the cheek kiss routinely to opposite gender staff when they came to the states to visit, but our English colleagues would not. And those who would only did it at the initial meeting on the trip, not every time we saw each other during their stay. I wonder if that was common practice for them, or an adaptation to American culture.

        3. Hrovitnir*

          I love the handshake thing, because it’s consistent. NZ is all over the place on greetings. I thought it was cute that when I was visiting family in Austria my teenage cousins came and shook all our hands before going out on New Years Eve.

    2. Anna*

      This is what I wondered. I spent a lot of my formative years in Spain, where greeting socially was always hand clasped as if you were shaking hands followed by a “kiss” on each cheek (more often than not just pressing cheeks together and making kiss sounds). However, I have no idea what that looks like in a more professional setting.

      1. Petra*

        Are the people in question Spanish, by any chance? I lived in Southern Spain for a while, where it’s considered quite rude NOT to do the “besitos”. Women and men greeting each other, and women greeting women, do the kisses, but men greeting men don’t. Most of the time, people don’t actually kiss each other- they just brush cheeks and do the little kissing noises, although sometimes a man will kiss a woman’s cheek with his lips . In that culture it is totally and completely normal and isn’t considered sexist or inappropriate in any way. My Spanish friends think that WE (Americans) are weird for NOT doing besitos.

        1. Marcela*

          Jajaja, only now I realize we never kiss each other. We just touch each other’s cheek with our cheek.

      2. Lablizard*

        I’m a Turk and both genders air kiss relatively early on in a professional relationship if you aren’t a covered woman. Men kiss each other, women kiss each other, and men and women kiss, but no one actually touches lips to cheek

    3. EAB*

      I have a team of employees in Lille, France, and visit our Lille and Paris offices often. The cultural norm is that everyone in the office goes around to greet each other in the morning, and it’s always two cheek-kisses for the women. When I’m on client visits, kisses often seem to be a part of the greeting — not just for me, but when I see employees in those offices greet each other. Nobody seems to think it’s the slightest bit weird.

      I saw similar behavior when I lived in central France for a year, so it’s not just a northern-French thing. In central and southern France, my experience is that it’s more likely to be three kisses, sometimes four. I never did master the rules about two, three, or four kisses…

    4. Suisse is strange*

      I live is Switzerland (Romandie, i.e. the french-speaking part), although admittedly, I work with a lot of fellow foreigners. In my experience, it’s pretty uncommon to greet people at work on a daily basis with kisses (btw, it’s three here), although I did have one boss who did make his rounds to greet everyone individually, including kisses, every morning, but he was rather atypical in general. I wouldn’t say it would be wildly inappropriate to faire la bise at work (indeed, among work friends or in more relaxed settings with colleagues, it would be fairly normal), but it isn’t typical.

      Every now and then I’ve had someone (always a much older man) really plant a kiss on my cheek. That’s always weird. As others have mentioned, the normal bises are more symbolic kisses than anything, which helps temper the awkwardness of it. As far as the special greetings for women go, here men rarely (i think? I should pay more attention) give air kisses to each other, but between women and between a woman and a man it’s the norm. As long as they are the normal air kisses, this is enough of a cultural norm here that I wouldn’t consider that part awkward.

    5. xyz*

      I work in Brussels and used to work in various bits of France for 5 years, and I’ve had kissing and non-kissing workplaces. And even the non-kissing ones, you might not kiss every day but there would be “special occasions” where someone might want to kiss you – new year, birthday, you got a promotion etc.
      The worst was a place in France where 3 of my direct colleagues cycled to work and would then want the bises with their gross, sweaty faces. Shudder.

  5. BabyShark*

    Yikes. This is not a thing where I’m from and would 100% make me uncomfortable. Heck it makes me uncomfortable when my FIL does it, I can’t imagine work colleagues doing it.

    I’ve noticed that by and large, men (I’m a woman) in my area (Southern state) don’t shake women’s hands when greeting them, but always shake men’s hands. I’m told proper etiquette is to never shake a woman’s hand unless she initiates the handshake. So I now go out of my way to initiate the handshake immediately. It throws off a lot of the older men with whom I deal.

      1. acmx*

        I get that from other women sometimes and I feel a bit bad because I use a firm handshake and I think I’ve just almost crushed their fingers.

        1. people people*

          It’s not as bad as the men who intentionally? unknowlingly? crush your hands. And I give pretty firm handshakes, too, so I don’t know why they are trying to attack (this has actually never happened to me in a work circumstance but it happens to me regularly during Mass… why are you trying to crush me during peace?)

      2. Nic*

        I give good handshakes; If they give me a limp hand they may end up slightly uncomfortable because I will still give a firm handshake. Those limp ones are creepy.

    1. Michele*

      I had a hard time with the handshake thing when I entered the workforce. I thought the men were being rude by not shaking my hand by default, then I learned that some men consider it to be presumptuous. Now I always make sure to put my hand out for the handshake.

    2. Hrovitnir*

      Good call. I’m working on that – there’s no real etiquette not to shake women’s hands here per se, but men often hesitate and are unsure. (Or just don’t do it and I feel pretty disrespected, personally.)

      And re: Camellia, half-hand handshakes and limp handshakes are the devil. Of course, I was explicitly taught the “firm, not hard, look into their eyes” thing so I’m extra aware of it.

  6. KarenT*

    I was travelling out of town for work to our office in another province (Ontario to Quebec). After working for two days in our Quebec office with an older male colleague (I am a young woman, which may not be relevant but I think impacts the way people perceive this) when I was leaving to go to the airport he sort of grabbed my shoulders and kissed both my cheeks. I kinda froze and gave him a weird look, and he panicked and apologized when he saw the look on my face. He apologized about 100 times for being so forward and forgetting that I’m not from Quebec. I laughed it off and while I found it weird, it ultimately didn’t bother me at all. But I really didn’t think it was appropriate in our situation.

      1. Chinook*

        I noticed the regional difference when I was on a Canadian/Central American exchange (yeah for CWY!). We Canadians came from all over and, when we met at our weekly meet ups, it got a point of people openly stating their preferences (handshake only or cheek kisses) and it was a given that the Quebecois of both genders cheek kissed but, the further west we were from, the more adamant we were to handshake. And the Latino/as were one cheek and the Quebecois two cheeks (or was it vice versa?)

        It became a group joke that someone would lean in to kiss hello and then go “right, your Albertan” and then put out their hand.

  7. Ros*

    In an American context, I completely agree.

    That said. I’m in Quebec. For the more English companies I’ve worked in, handshakes for all genders is the norm. Once you leave Montreal and things get pretty French, though? The double-cheek-kiss is the norm, culturally, and most people wouldn’t even flag it as something note-worthy or unusual. My understanding is that France runs a similar social context, though, not being French, I can’t vouch for that. If your company/colleagues have a cultural difference, that might be something you’ll have to deal with.

    That said? If the employee in question is uncomfortable with it, by all means step in. But if they’re comfortable, she’s comfortable, and you’re in an environment (or country…) where it’s not out of place, making a fuss about it will absolutely make the gender issue more problematic than the cheek-kiss greeting.

    1. Elfie*

      I’ve worked in the French-speaking part of Belgium, and it’s pretty similar there. Sometimes you’d even get the triple-cheek-kiss. I used to be really uptight about it, but loosened up once I knew how to navigate it. And gender never came into it, it was just the normal way to start and end the work day (this was a service environment though, not an office one).

    2. MadGrad*

      It’s present in lots of cultures! I know it from Québècois family (hey hey), which usually involves two cheeks and minimal actual lip-cheek contact. I met a lovely group of people from Brazil at a conference once and was incredibly thrown when a) they did it, because I’ve been in the US a long time now and Americans typically don’t and b) they only did one cheek! It was very confusing to get used to.

    3. Trig*

      I live on the border between QC and ON, and our office is on the ON side. The francophones in the workplace sometimes do the cheek kisses, the anglos don’t. I get that it’s cultural, but I kiiiinda wish they wouldn’t.

      On one memorable occasion, a man who I was familiar but not close with was greeting a group of people who he had worked with for years. Handshakes for the men, cheek kiss for my boss (the only other woman), momentary pause, awkward cheek kiss for me too where I smashed my jaw into his like an idiot, handshake for the next guy… who with mock-offense exclaimed “Where’s my kiss?!”

      Yeah. I’ve also engaged in awkward goodbye party hugging because everyone but me has been here for many years, and it felt awkward for both parties being the only one not hugged.

      Workplace social norms are weird.

      1. StudentPilot*

        I work on the QC side, and at my current workplace handshakes are the norm, but in a previous position on the QC side it was cheek-kisses. And hugs at Christmas, for everyone.

    4. I used to be Murphy*

      I’m in Alberta but have a colleague from Quebec. She has both hugged me and done the cheek/air kiss thing. The first time she hugged me I stood still, with my arms at my side and said, “there’s hugging. Why is there hugging? Why are we touching at work?” No I’m known as the “don’t touch the staff” manager, which I am 100% ok with.

      1. Chinook*

        I remember coming back after being submerged in the cheek kissing culture and going in for a kiss on my mom, an Albertan. Her reaction was the same “why is there kissing? Is this a new thing?” In my family, a hug hello and good bye was all you get and anything more was just weird.

      2. Hrovitnir*

        Best response. People don’t hug me much (thank god), but I tend to naturally put myself in vaguely the right position but be incredibly stiff. Pls no.

  8. MWKate*

    I can understand the kissing issue would be uncomfortable and odd – as an American though it’s hard for me to judge to what extent.

    Aside from that though – these are other employees, that you currently work with, and they shake each of your hands every time they enter your office to ask a question? You mentioned that in previous workplaces it’s just a nod of the head, and a hello which means I’m assuming this isn’t a normal thing where you are. That’s the part I find the most odd to be honest. Is there a way to curb these constant personal greetings all together? That might be easier than focusing just on the way your female employee is being greeted.

    1. On Fire*

      At OldJob, we got a new set of C-suites. They all shook hands with staff every.time they saw us. Even if it was several times in one day. It was weird.
      I know a few men who do the cheek kiss to women. These men tend to be of a similar age and background, and in the context of where I see them, there are some blurring of professional and social lines, so it’s different without being too sketchy/skeevy. (I’m in the mid-south U.S.)

  9. MadGrad*

    Actually, it’s not weird to just do it with women! It’s more common in a lot of cultures for women to do it with each other, women/close men, but not as often men/men. I can especially see this being a decent distinction to make in a culture like the US where this isn’t typical, and might be seen as inappropriate. The “mwah mwah” sounds, depending on how hammy, are also pretty normal.

    I think a lot of it boils down to: is she from a culture where this is s thing? If so, your other employee might be similarly so (or have family that is) and sincerely not mind. If she just wants to be ~fancy~ then it gets a bit weirder.

    1. TC*

      I can’t comment for everyone, but for me, the “mwah mwah” sound is actually kind of an acknowledgement of the kiss if you will — otherwise it’s just two people bobbing their heads next to each other. Amongst my friends and I back in Australia (Melbourne), we do these air kisses, but we don’t usually physically touch, so the sound is kind of important.

    2. LBK*

      I was going to say something to this effect, too – the social convention is that the kisses are only for women, and a man-to-man greeting is a handshake. But that doesn’t prevent the social convention from being sexist (and a little homophobic) and given that it doesn’t seem like the OP is in an industry or a company with a strict deference to tradition and etiquette, I don’t see that as a compelling reason to allowed gendered behavior like that to continue.

      1. MadGrad*

        It is absolutely gendered, yeah, and that point is debateable as well. But it’s also a very normal practice in a lot of cultures that I don’t consider intrinsically harmful. Plus, the direct report doesn’t seem to mind, so if she confirms when asked that it isn’t a problem for her then it seems like an overreach to just ban it because someone else finds it a little odd.

        1. LBK*

          I think if they’ve settled into a routine of this being the way they greet each other, it’s a little weird to interfere. You could definitely argue that it’s an overly familiar greeting for a professional setting, even if she doesn’t mind it. But I’d at least be on high alert for other ways those colleagues might be displaying sexist behavior – you can see right in the OP’s own letter how something as simple as a greeting warps his perception of her. It’s not completely harmless.

          1. MadGrad*

            I was made aware up above that I’d misread this letter (no more AAM before breakfast!), and I actually agree now that it’s pretty odd. I’d thought there was one employee initiating this – not one always on the receiving end!

      2. FitLady*

        Yes, I completely agree with LBK. Just because it is a cultural norm, tradition, or convention, doesn’t mean it isn’t sexist. It also really calls out that the person has noticed your gender and is making decisions based on it, small or large.

        It makes me very uncomfortable when my gender is emphasized at work, especially since I work in a male-dominated field.

      3. Lissa*

        Gah, I have such a negative reaction to allowing gendered behaviour to continue in order to be culturally sensitive! I understand it’s really common, but it just…bugs me.

        1. Hrovitnir*

          Yeah. I think there are circumstances where it’s logical, like obviously if you are the transplant. But I still don’t like being on the receiving end of it, and strongly support the “ask her” approach put forward by Alison. Most people would not say anything off their own back!

  10. Michelenyc*

    In my industry (fashion) it is a very common greeting with some vendors & co-workers that you don”t see on a daily basis.

    1. BRR*

      So much discussion is on regional customs, I forgot about industry norms. I don’t know the fashion industry well, but I would imagine it’s much more common than other industries.

      1. Chloe Silverado*

        I mentioned upthread that I live in Miami and this happens – I also work for a company that does a specific kind of B2B sales that tends to require a lot of schmoozing. This practice may also be a function of our industry!

        1. TL -*

          In Miami, it might be the Cuban influence (Do Cubans do the cheek kiss? It’s common in a lot of South/Central American cultures.)

          I got the cheek kiss hello/goodbye from Mexican/Argentine people occasionally, but it was always in a social setting (kinda? One of them ran an Argentine cultural center and he cheek kissed most people he knew there but it never felt inappropriate.)

        2. heatherskib*

          Education here, which tends to be pretty touchy feely. it’s not uncommon for principals I worked with years ago to hug me.

  11. Ivy*

    I work at well known global company with very diverse culture and personnel from all over the world. There does seem to be a common pattern about greetings. A man and a woman, or 2 women (that know each other fairly well) greet with a hug, while 2 men handshake. My impression is that this happens when they haven’t seen each other for a bit, at least a few days, in our job also could be months. Day to day greeting is more of a “hi” thing without physical contact. I am a woman and I have never considered this to be sexist, just different customs. I am from Europe, so this may also be influencing my impressions. From my part of the world men do not do handshakes with women, it’s seen as impolite. So either no contact or a hug.

    Anyway, I was wondering have you made a broader observation for your company – do they behave that way only towards her or also towards other women?

  12. Gazebo Slayer (formerly I'm a Little Teapot)*

    Yes, DEFINITELY ask the employee if she has a problem with this. I would be profoundly uncomfortable and grossed out by having multiple managers and executives kiss me on the cheek every day. I’d probably object to it now, but in the past I might have been afraid to. I know your coworker is in her 40s, but she might still be too wary of possible professional repercussions to speak up, especially if she’s regarded as “the baby of the family” and thus lacks seniority and standing.

  13. Catalin*

    Please, please ask the lady coworker (privately) how she feels about this: many women wouldn’t feel comfortable with it but not know how to address it. (Conversely, many women may enjoy the greeting. Regardless, I TOTALLY get your aversion to the ‘mwah’ sound.)
    If she’s less than totally comfortable with the greeting, I recommend you speak with the kissers privately and not in the open arena. If its a problem, this is something you have the power to stop.
    Good luck!

  14. gnarlington*

    Honestly, I wouldn’t have thunk about this at all. In Miami, this is just how we greet people—and sometimes it carries over into the workplace. (Not the double-cheek kiss thing, but a kiss on the cheek is pretty normal even for strangers.) But you’re right, it shouldn’t be different for men and women.

  15. nnn*

    My first thought is that OP should respond to this by cheek-kissing the cheek-kissers. (Not a good idea, obviously, but entertaining.)

  16. LawLady*

    I know it’s a cultural norms thing, but ugghh I hate cheek kissing. My husband is from a different culture and every time we go to a family event I get grabbed and kissed by lots of people I don’t know. I grin and bear it, because I know it’s cultural and I want to stay friendly with my inlaws, but on the inside I am twitching.

    OP, if you’re in an American context, please ask your employee how she feels about this and offer to shut it down in a way that doesn’t make it look like she’s asking.

  17. Anna*

    I live and work in Chile where kissing (just one!) is the norm for male-female or female-female greetings. (Men shake hands with each other.) This is true in professional and social settings, even among people who have just met. As an American, it took me a while to get used to, mostly remembering that I was supposed to do it, not that I was uncomfortable with it. So if it’s the cultural norm wherever the letter writer is, I would recommend just going with it!

    1. Trig*

      “remembering that I was supposed to do it”

      Haha, teenage-me on a weeklong homestay in France sincerely offended a bunch of my host-sister’s friends one time because I was just like “Bye!” and left instead of tediously cheek-kissing the entire group. Two days earlier, when meeting said host-sister, was the first time I’d ever been cheeked-kissed by a peer, so, yeah, I wasn’t very good at it.

    2. MadGrad*

      Ha! I mentioned this story up a bit earlier, but I met some lovely Brazilian people at a conference in the US who did this and was so thrown! I’m used to not doing it unless someone is speaking French, and in my surprised switch to kiss-mode I awkwardly made for another one because my autopilot expects two!

    3. Lady Julian*

      Seconding this. I went on a business trip to Argentina & cheek-kissing (complete with mwah) sounds was normal there. Some things that we thing are weird or uncomfortable are just life for other cultures, and I think it’s important to remember that.

  18. Lora*

    Ha, just got back from Argentina where men also do the air-cheek-kiss thing with other men. The American men get a deer in the headlights look when they see a guy who practically sweats testosterone coming at them to kiss their cheek, or in the general vicinity of their cheek.

    Making noises though would be weird anywhere, I think. Every culture where I’ve been that they do the cheek kissing it’s pretty much silent. And it’s not like…it’s not a KISS kiss, it’s just a little peck that’s barely-there. If they give a kiss on the cheek that would, you know, leave lipstick marks or something, that would be freaky. In such cultures it is also generally acceptable to air-kiss and not actually touch the person.

    It’s sort of like, you know how there are some groups of people where hugging is a thing, and in those cases you can get away with a brief shoulder-patting upper body barely touching hug? But then there are THOSE huggers who hug for way too long and insist on full body contact like they are snuggling with you and it’s WEIRD? You can just air-kiss the same way you would do the barely-there shoulder patting.

    But generally, yeah, what the hell? handshakes and high fives. That’s all you need. If you are feeling a compulsion to express your affection for someone, use your words. Jeez.

    1. Emi.*

      When I lived to Germany, the Turkish guys would combine a macho-macho bro-hug/hand-clasp with a double cheek-kiss where American guys insert a bro double back-pat.

      1. Engineer Woman*

        Descriptions are awesome and gymnastics routine sounding:

        Imagining a play-by-play:
        And…here’s Marcus going in for the macho-macho bro-hug/hand-clasp with a double cheek-kiss.
        Thomas, however, changes it up with a bro-hug/hand-clasp with a double back-pat.

  19. Engineer Woman*

    When travelling to continental Europe for work in a global company, the first time the female visiting colleagues see the European colleagues (of either gender): 2 kisses, one on each cheek. But on subsequent days – “normal” hellos. I do think the male colleagues travelling there got handshakes.

    As I am not European, it was strange at first. But I got used to it. Never did figure out if there’s a protocol (left cheek first or right?)

    1. bluesboy*

      In Italy, always left cheek first, then right. Younger people sometimes throw in a final left cheek one for luck!

      Took me a while to work it out, I banged teeth a few times after moving here until I got used to it…

    2. Jen RO*

      Ask for each country! In Romania it’s left, then right. When I visited my (Romanian) friend in Austria, she warned me that they kiss the other way around. I always need to focus – I’ve almost kissed people on the lips a few times!

      1. Chinook*

        “When I visited my (Romanian) friend in Austria, she warned me that they kiss the other way around. I always need to focus – I’ve almost kissed people on the lips a few times!”

        Man, and I thought relearning how to check before crossing a street was bad when the traffic flow was opposite my norm. I spent 2 years going “right-left-right” at every Japanese intersection. If I were you, Jen RO, I would end up muttering the same thing whenever I said hi. :)

  20. Purest Green*

    (although I think you might be being a little tongue-in-cheek there — and what a gross expression that is in this context)

    Bwahaha! Thank you for that bit of humor. I seriously needed it today. :)

  21. hbc*

    I would lean towards asking the employee if she minds if you ban it, rather than asking if she wants you to put a stop to it.

    1) It’s starting to affect *your* job. Yeah, you shouldn’t be going “no women then,” but if you’re having to assess female candidates for how likely they are to be cool with being kissed all the time, that’s not good.
    2) There are legitimate general arguments why it shouldn’t happen–for example, IT has a bad enough reputation for treating women differently, you don’t need an overt sign of it in the office.
    3) She might be concerned about being seen as a Complainer. Instead of setting the bar at “This is worth complaining about,” put it at “I actively like this and want it to continue.”

    Make it all about you and how you want your group running and your employees treated.

    1. Kindling*

      Well, I agree with most of what you’ve said, but for #1, he should not have to assess female candidates for their comfort level with this. It seems like a pretty easy part of the workplace culture to change. He should just talk to the men who are initiating this greeting and ask them switch to handshakes for all genders. They legitimately may not have thought about how it looks.

      1. hbc*

        I put it badly, but I think we’re in agreement. If the atmosphere stays as-is, he’s going to have his pool of candidates narrowed, which might be okay when the narrowing factor is something you’re deliberately cultivating or can’t control, but is just dumb in a situation like this. The only other options are making a particular person object, which I don’t like, or him making his office a No Kissing Zone.

        Which I suppose means I should take out the part about asking for her opinion. Even if she were initiating, that’s not how he wants his department to roll.

        1. Kindling*

          Right, I see, after re-reading your intro sentence I see we’re on the same page here. I guess it’s just unfathomable to me that someone would actually for real change their whole hiring process when it would be so much easier to ask those men to knock it off – but the letter writer even said themselves they very briefly entertained the item of *not hiring women* because of this, so stranger things have happened!

    2. Zahra*

      Yes, all of this. Especially setting the bar at “Do I like this enough that I want to insist that it should go on?”

  22. Willis*

    Rather than letting the kissers’ actions bias your hiring process, why not take the opportunity to address this with them before a new person (man or woman) starts? Even if your current staff member doesn’t care (and she may very well care even though she hasn’t said anything about it), I wouldn’t assume that the next woman in that role would feel the same. Instead of waiting for someone new to feel uncomfortable, I’d mention it ahead of time and ask them to offer the same greeting to your staff regardless of gender.

  23. designbot*

    I find it a bit odd to do such an extended greeting ritual every time you see a colleague in the first place. I would shake hands with a colleague I had not seen in some time, or maybe someone I used to work with but no longer do, but I’d never go up to a current colleague and expect a handshake ritual before I got to ask them a question, and certainly not for everyone they share an office zone with! Maybe a way to address it is to cut that bit of things short in the first place? It’d certainly save everyone a bit of time.

    1. Thlayli*

      Ikr! Honestly I think the creepiest/weirdest thing is that they go round shaking hands at all every single time they come in. Why would you do that? I go talk to people at their desks all the time and I don’t shake their hands or kiss them every time. And I certainly don’t go round shaking hands with all their office mates. How distracting!

  24. Em too*

    In my large UK company, some parts are much more tactile than others. My boss moved from one to the other, and I received a peck on the cheek when liaising with him in his new role. This would definitively never have happened in original dept. Culture can be extremely local.

  25. bluesboy*

    Northern Italy here – kisses NEVER in the workplace among colleagues. Maybe, maybe with a customer who you haven’t seen for a month or so and have a close relationship with. Maybe among colleagues at the Christmas party or a similar social occasion. And always, and only man/woman or woman/woman, never man/man.

    Socially also man/man, but that’s more Southern Italy.

    Speaking then as someone who lives in a cheek-kissing country, I still find this letter to make me a little uncomfortable.

    People are saying ‘see if she’s uncomfortable, if so, shut it down’. For me personally, shut it down even if she’s cool with it. First, she might be uncomfortable, but not ‘want to make a fuss’. Second, a future female colleague might be uncomfortable with it. Third, it sends unfortunate messages about people being treated differently, which is not appropriate.

    Hope you work out what to do!

      1. bluesboy*

        Fair enough, I guess I assumed based on my experience. I’ve worked in 8 different offices in the last fifteen years, and really never seen kissing going on in the office. What sector do you work in?

  26. DevAssist*

    I’m American (just FYI for the sake of the cultural discussion) and I’m fine with kisses when I know the person really well. My childhood friend, uncle, grandparents, etc. can kiss me on the cheeks and I’ll kiss them, but if a stranger were to attempt to kiss me (in a setting where doing so wasn’t a cultural norm) I would be really Not Okay with it. I think cultures and individual personalities come into play a lot here, and I like Allison’s suggestion of seeing if it is something the employee is comfortable with and then reacting appropriately.

    1. TL -*

      I’m an American and my family does not kiss. With the exception of a significant other, I am not okay with people kissing me, cheek or 0therwise.
      It’s only okay if I know it’s a cultural thing & I really like that person & it’s in a completely social setting. (which is a new rule I just added today!)

  27. FlyingFergus*

    A small point – if OP uses Allison’s otherwise great script, may I suggest leaving out the word “ever” so that you just say, “If that makes you feel uncomfortable, I can speak with them privately to get it to stop…”

    Using “If that ever makes you…” seems to assume the employee is fine with it now, which would make it harder for me if I were in her position to speak up and say, “Well, actually, I do have an issue with it.”

    And now I am mentally tracking the places I can never work – the UK, Montreal, Miami. I would have to immediately quit if someone tried to cheek or even air kiss me.

  28. Jessesgirl72*

    Can I just speak out against the “oh, if this is fill-in-blank culture, it’s just normal!”

    It used to be normal to treat women in all kinds of sexist ways in the workplace. Normal explains it, but doesn’t excuse the different gendered treatment.

    The OP and his direct report shouldn’t feel obligated to fight society about this norm, but if they want to, I don’t think they should be discouraged by everyone telling them that’s just the way things are in some cultures, with the implication that he needs to just accept it.

    1. FitLady*

      I completely agree! There are many normal/traditional practices that are sexist, and I hate being singled out because of my gender in general, but especially at work. It’s a reminder that you aren’t seen as the same or equal (ie, treated the same way) to the men.

    2. Sylvia*

      I agree on this specific issue OP wrote in about – but more generally, it may not be seen as sexist by women within an individual culture. And I don’t think they need me, an American, or someone else from an outside culture to tell them they’ve got it all wrong.

      1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

        This is such an interesting and nuanced issue. This thread is not the time or space but I’d love to discuss further. Maybe on the weekend thread?

      2. Lissa*

        Yeah, I’m really torn about this one, tbh. I don’t want to tell another culture they’re doing something wrong, but I would hate being treated differently like this based on gender! Weirdly, I don’t think it would bother me if all genders did it to each other in whatever culture it is.

        I just hate having to think “OK, what’s more important, sexism or cultural sensitivity” in a situation like this. :(

  29. MsMaryMary*

    I have a client who greets me with a kiss on the cheek. He’s an ex-NFL player and while I’m not a petite woman, I did have a momentary panic the first time he leaned in. That a lot of man coming at you.

    I dislike the professional kiss even more than I dislike the professional hug, but I’m not going to say anything. This client only started to kiss my cheek within the last few months, I feel like it’s a sign we’ve built a rapport. I don’t think I could say anything without jeopardizing the rapport. Alison, do you have a suggestions on wording when the power dynamic is unbalanced like that? When the kisser is your superior or a client? I honestly don’t think he means to make me uncomfortable, I think that’s how he greets women, socially or professionally, that he’s fond of.

  30. Lead, Follow or Get Outta the Way!*

    I’m an American woman (in my early 40’s) working in the US for a Swiss company. I’ve been with the company 4 years and have been to Switzerland 4 times. There are some colleagues that I’ve developed good relationships with (male and female) and they always greet me with 2 kisses (1 per cheek). Everyone else, I shake hands with. Even when they come to the states, we continue the tradition and it doesn’t bother me one bit. I actually find it endearing because in Swiss culture, they take family and friendship circles very seriously and it lets me know I’ve (somewhat) been accepted into that circle. This is also a family owned company (very well run) with over 250 employees if that adds any context.

    1. silvertech*

      I live in French-speaking Switzerland and they give 3 kisses! I’m Italian, I’m used to 2 kisses (left-right), and I still forget about it, it makes for some awkward moments.

      1. KatiePie*

        Silvertech, I am intrigued. I’m an American woman and have been on the receiving end of a double cheek kiss a couple times in my life, instigated by someone else. In that scenario you just follow their lead, so it never occurred to me that there would be a set pattern (though of course, that does make sense, in order to avoid awkward situations). So when you say left-right, is it the instigator’s left or the receiver’s left that you start with?

        1. silvertech*

          Following their lead is always fine I’d say, because there’s always the chance of encountering different customs!

          Anyway, I meant that first you lean left to kiss the right cheek of the other person, and then the other way around. It’s so ingrained that I had to think about it before typing!

          1. KatiePie*

            Thank you! I’ll continue to follow. But should the urge ever strike, now I know how to greet someone!

  31. LBK*

    Here’s something I haven’t seen mentioned yet – is there any chance she’s actually the one who started this? The situation makes a lot more sense to me if I imagine that she’s the one who started kissing people as a greeting, and now it’s just carried on as people come to know her as the woman that kisses you when she says hello. That’s the only rational explanation I can come up with for why a seemingly random collection of colleagues have decided on this greeting specifically for this woman.

    1. OP*

      Yes, this is what I was wondering as well.
      My take on it was that she may have started it deliberately to garner sympathy based on other behaviour from this employee, so it’s not a single observation but many others combined to lead me to this conclusion.

      1. ZTwo*

        It’s also entirely possible she started this because it’s how she prefers to greet people. I’m not saying that makes it appropriate, but I wouldn’t necessarily read deliberation or deep ulterior motive into it, especially since it is a common (though not at work)greeting for many people.

        I think the cheek kissing has become a bit of a red herring for you–you see this report and somewhat manipulative/(emotional?) and have focused on to the cheek kisses as a big part of that. If it’s just the kisses, I would say you’re reading far to much into them and it’s better to address them neutrally. If it’s a bunch of other behaviors that lead you to think that, having a conversation that conflates the two will probably seem weird and be unproductive.

      2. LBK*

        Wait, no, that’s not what I meant at all. I only meant that she just might have a personal preference for greeting people that way, not that it was done on purpose to evoke a certain image. I had a coworker who was a hugger and it wasn’t for any certain reason, it’s just who she was.

        I’m curious if you spend this much time trying to interpret the intent of the behavior of your male employee.

  32. Yes, I'm a Humorless Feminist*

    This situation really shows how sexism can damage women at work. I mean, the OP has a female colleague who’s being treated differently due to her gender. His reaction is to see her as less professional or capable (“the baby of the family”) and to consider discriminatory hiring practices (I know how to avoid seeing sexist behavior at work–we won’t hire any women!) instead of, you know, telling the people who are treating her differently to cut it out.

    OP, you sound like a conscientious manager and, like Allison, I’m assuming you didn’t mean the stuff about not hiring a woman again seriously. But it really jumped out at me how the behavior of some of your male colleagues is causing you to think less of a female colleague–even though it’s their behavior, not hers. And that’s why it’s not just a kiss or just a handshake–it actually matters.

    1. OP*

      I agree with you. I can’t shotgun a problem by not hiring another women. It crossed my mind which is why I penned an email for help as I wasn’t pleased with my thinking.

      I’ve worked with many women who far excel my knowledge and capability and to be honest, it never occurred to me that they are women – they’re my co-workers, my managers, my directors etc. The cheek-kissing is just one of a few behaviours that I have attributed to my female employee for instigating and not stopping, as it’s her MO. It’s hard to put it in to words so it comes out as sane, but I have this inner feeling that she’s orchestrated it to be that way and not discouraged it. Anyone reading that last sentence would think I’m reading too much into it or that I’m delusional but it’s like a passive-aggressive thing but sympathy-garnering instead. We all garner sympathy at times but I feel she’s using her feminine charm to turn it into a lasting defence mechanism.

      1. LBK*

        I think you need to back way off the idea that she’s using her gender to help her get ahead. Men play up our personality and friendliness like this all the time and it’s just called being charismatic or charming, and it’s not generally read negatively the way it is when women do it. In fact, it’s often viewed as a valuable skill, especially in fields like sales.

        1. N.J.*

          I think he might be referring to the stereotypical behaviors attributed to women surrounding the idea of femininity and fragility. Based on the OP’s other comments, he is referring to crying or acting cutesy or babyish etc. as a defense mechanism or manipulation. It’s very problematic, obviously, but I’m not sure he was referring to just being charismatic. I feel like he was referring to the whole idea of “feminine wiles” or similar. It’s still horse shit, and the OP seems admirably aware of the problems in thinking that way, so good for him for writing in.

          1. LBK*

            I wasn’t thinking the comparison to his daughters was literal, although I do know that there are people who employ weird baby-talk behaviors and other things like that as a defense mechanism (we’ve had a letter about it here). If that’s the kind of behavior she’s exhibiting them I agree my comment’s a little off base.

            But generally speaking, I think he needs to scale back the amount of thinking he’s doing about her behavior being a result of her gender. If she is doing things that are manipulative and inappropriate as office persuasion techniques, that can and should be performance managed irrespective of her gender.

            1. N.J.*

              Yes, good point. Never disagreed that he shouldn’t be basing his evaluations on gender. Just thought it was a separate issue as related to the idea of charming and its definition of behaviors between men and women. If she is acting in a delibaretly babyish or manipulative manner he should address it just as he would with a man, and question himself as to whether he is judging that behavior more harshly related to her gender, as you pointed out.

      2. Student*

        If she actually does this to build rapport with those guys – does she do this to build a rapport because the “normal” ways of building rapport with these guys are heavily male-gendered? I know a couple male managers who only seem to build rapport with men, over stereotypical-male things, like sports chatter or fishing stories or guns or video games. While women can converse about and take interest in these things, we often can’t have the same kind of bonding discussions over them that a man can – there’s often a response of disbelief, or an opinion that the woman interested in “men’s” stuff is weird or defective, or of feeling threatened or unhappy that a woman is invading a “man’s” hobby. I could see why a woman might resort to “daughter” type behavior to try to develop a rapport with such a guy if she felt it necessary for her career.

        Also, you haven’t even tried asking her or the men involved to stop. You are the manager. This bothers you. So at least discuss it with her! Or put a stop to it! Don’t just throw shade at her behind her back over it. That’s a coward’s way out, and it’s buying into stereotypes without using the tools at your disposal to try to figure out what’s actually going on. It takes two for this to happen, so if this IS a manipulative effort to get some director’s sympathy when it isn’t merited, then the director is more at fault than she is. The director has all the power in such a work relationship, and if he gives more favorable treatment to women that kiss him, he’s the person causing the biggest problem, not the women who take advantage of his bias. You’re targeting her instead because it’s easier than dealing with the root cause.

      3. ZVA*

        OP, I’m confused—you say “the cheek-kissing is just one of a few behaviours that I have attributed to my female employee for instigating and not stopping,” but in your original letter it seemed like it was the men who were instigating the kisses… I guess I don’t understand what your concern is. Are you worried that these men are treating her differently b/c she’s a woman and that she might not be OK with this? I think that’s how Alison interpreted your letter but your comments make me think there’s something else going on.

      4. Thlayli*

        In all honesty you do come across as biased against her, if not because of her gender then because of her personality. It’s 2017 and you’re accusing a woman of “using feminine charm to garner sympathy”, you interpret men kissing her on the cheek as “her being the baby of the family”, and it even crossed your mind that you wouldn’t want to have another woman around in case you had to witness more kissing.

        people use whatever tools they have at their disposal to get their job done. I’ve seen men with forceful personalities get work done by shouting loudest and demanding. When I try that it comes across as comical or bitchy depending on whether the person I’m talking to’a personality. However when I invest a little time in being friendly and smiling at support staff, gatekeepers etc, and remembering to ask about their kids, then I can also get work done just as fast if not faster than my loud male colleagues.

        I dislike having to “use my feminine charm” and it actually doesn’t come naturally to me, but it bloody well works. If I found out a manager considered not hiring women simply because he didn’t like the chatting and asking about kids and so on, I would be appalled. If she is using her charm then she’s probably doing it for a good reason.

        1. OP*

          We don’t have loud and shouty male collegues in my company and I feel sorry for you if that’s the case where you work.

          I’m based in the UK and we chat, smile, say hello, ask about each other’s kids with every level of employee from gate keepers to director level.

          You somehow feel that this is a ‘feminine charm’ characteristic but it’s gender agnostic. It’s called common courtesy and it’s a humanistic trait. No one gender has a monopoly on it.

          You say you dislike using your feminine charm as it doesn’t come naturally to you. You’ve stated two ‘tools’ at your disposal; loud and shouty or friendly and smiling. I’m assuming the friendly and smiley is the ‘feminine charm’ you dislike using? Why does this not come naturally to you and why is it a ‘feminine charm’?

          Before you reply that I’ve misunderstood you, consider your last paragraph where you say “If I found out a manager considered not hiring women simply because he didn’t like the chatting and asking about kids and so on,” you’ve truly misunderstood me too.

  33. Anon for this one*

    This could very much be a cultural thing. I worked at a college that had a large Hispanic/Latino population and coworkers greeted each other this way there. It wasn’t considered inappropriate.

  34. Lisa*

    When I was in Dublin for a multi day intimate set of meetings with a small group that involved a lot of socializing after work it became common at the end of the night for the double cheek kiss all around. The first one caught me off guard and ended up with an accidental lip kiss lol but after that it was fine. It’s a totally non sexual thing and never felt creepy or weird to me. They didn’t do it with total strangers on first meeting but after a social bond had been formed.

  35. OP*

    Thanks for all your replies. Apologies for the long post, ahead…

    It did occur to me that she may be fielding gender-specific behaviours directed her way by people above her in rank, but I have one of those inner-feelings (the one’s you can’t easily put in to words) that she plays up to it. She is leaving the company. She resigned last week. It has nothing to do with the cheek-kissing.

    I’m married and have three wonderful daughters. I’m aware of the ‘hidden barriers’ that still persist in education and in the workplace. Both my wife and I are instilling in our daughters, core values of family, integrity, fairness and equality. I don’t ever want them to believe it’s a man’s world.

    Being a father of three girls, I do get my arm twisted easily by them (is this because they’re charming girls or just my children, I’m not sure?). However, I do feel that my female employee, does a similar thing – hence the baby of the family remark. It’s nothing concrete but my instinct feels she plays up to it. I have only been her manage for six weeks. My two direct reports have been with the company for over two years, so this has been going on before I joined the company and I wonder how it started. There is no cheek kissing with any of the other female co-workers in the company. We have a 60-40 split of female to male.

    There are other behaviours too that compound things. She cried when a large client of ours was having issues with the system she had written. Our company is not cut-throat and we have freedom to be as creative as we wish. As many places of work, stress levels can rise when multiple problems with clients come in at the same time and deadlines are looming. It’s part of the job, right?

    Can it be called reverse sexism, if it’s alright to cry and garner sympathy because a bug is discovered in your software, as a female, but a male employee has to be stoic and get on with it? I ask this question because, when this incident happened, I felt I could not be open and frank with her as to the causes of why the software failed. I had been noticing failures in processes she was not following before becoming her manager. Now those failures have caused a headache for all three of us, I feel my hands are (were) tied somewhat, in investigating those issues and preventing them from happening again.

    She has handed in her resignation so problem employee is leaving the company soon.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Hmmm, okay, I actually think there are some problems with how you’re looking at this. As her manager, you cannot give her different feedback than you would if she were a man. If you’ve been withholding feedback from her because she’s a woman, that’s a problem, and I’d urge you to resolve not to do that with her and future employees.

    2. LBK*

      Thanks for following up. There’s a lot going on in this comment, so I just want to hone in on one piece:

      Can it be called reverse sexism, if it’s alright to cry and garner sympathy because a bug is discovered in your software, as a female, but a male employee has to be stoic and get on with it?

      The only reason it was “okay” for her to cry in that moment was because you let her. If you wouldn’t accept crying from a man and would still give him potentially harsh feedback, you should still do that with a woman. Giving her a pass because you think she’s too fragile or emotional is falling prey to sexist thinking. Whether she intentionally played it up to garner sympathy is irrelevant (and a really sticky accusation to unpack, so I’m not going to try).

      1. OP*

        Thanks for your feedback LBK.

        I’m an empathetic person, so if someone cries, I feel their pain so I couldn’t add to her pain by being harsh with her at the time. That’s the thing though – it’s about timing so using the ‘all hand’s to the pump’ atmosphere that suddenly appeared due to the software bug would have alleviated the stress and allowed me to point out the need to follow processes in a less harsh manner. But when the tears started, I felt it was an inappropriate time to say anything. It was also an inappropriate emotion to display at the time (you really had to be there to understand what I mean) and caused some drama. It took the attention of the issue for my other colleagues.

        The garnering-sympathy is how I feel she is controlling her colleagues and other managers as no other females cheek-kiss, only her. It’s a way of showing others that she’s popular and has friends in high places – at least that’s how it’s coming across to me.

        1. LBK*

          Well, delivering feedback to an employee who cries/is crying is a skill all on its own; there’s advice in the archives on this site about how to handle it that would probably be worth reading in case that situation presents itself again. It still has nothing to do with her gender.

          As for your last paragraph, I encourage you to think about the men you know who have connections, friends in high place, and/or a wide professional network, and whether you associate their ability to build those kinds of relationships with their gender. I worked for one of those “guy who knows everyone” people, and while I wouldn’t say it was viewed purely positively, it was never viewed as a result of him “playing up his masculine wiles” or what-have-you. It was considered a gender-neutral skill, no matter how he actually accomplished it.

          1. JB (not in Houston)*

            OP, LBK is making some really good points in the comments to your letter, and I encourage you to consider them.

          2. ZTwo*

            +1 especially for the last paragraph. It also sounds to me that you may be reading (ulterior) motives in her actions on the basis of gender presentation, i.e. she might be more “feminine” than other women you’ve worked closely with before and so there’s some bias associated with femininity that you might be projecting on her. (This is assuming she’s the type of “big kiss, loads of love, mwah” type woman). Partially I’m guessing that because you’re IT and in my experience women in those roles will often feel the need to reduce this sort of behavior in order to be taken more seriously.

            It may be that this woman is actually being manipulative and it certainly sounds like there are areas for coaching and feedback. And I might be totally wrong about the kind of woman I’m picturing. But gender presentation is absolutely a place where unconscious bias can come into play, so it might be worth the gut check to see if this seems to be stuff she’s actually doing or stuff you may be reading into because she’s more expressive/social/into pink than you’re used to.

            1. LBK*

              Right – a woman can genuinely prefer to dress and act in a more traditionally feminine manner and, separately, have manipulative habits that should be coached out of her. The two aren’t intrinsically intertwined, nor is the former only ever employed for the purpose of the latter.

              I’d consider my VP on the more feminine side, usually going for fashion-forward outfits, done up hair and makeup, perfume, etc. and heaven help you if you tried to imply she were doing it to sucker people into doing her bidding. You’d get her high heel right up your ass. People get work done for her because she’s smart, reliable and fair, and those qualities are wholly independent of her gender presentation.

            2. OP*

              I understand what you’re saying regarding femininity and why it shouldn’t be a problem. The fact that we’re an IT department is what highlights the behaviour or should I say magnifies it.

              Okay, let’s take away the gender and we’re a team of androgynous people. Okay, so systems fail in IT all the time and cause problems, agreed? What do we do about it? Do we cry? Isn’t that behaving like a child? Do we encourage personal space encroachment by cheek-kissing so that it wastes time but assures that the androgynous employee is noticed by everyone? Isn’t that manipulative behaviour?

              Also as an androgynous manager I get a funny feeling (a kind of spidey sense) when multiple behaviours like this add up to my employee being manipulative for reasons they don’t need to be. Just be professional and honest.

              1. LBK*

                But that’s exactly the point: you should still have handled the issue the exact same way even though she cried, but you didn’t because your employee is a woman. If a man had an inappropriate emotional reaction – say, yelled in your face, since you can’t seem to imagine a man crying at work – would you have just folded and never told him what the problem was? Or would you have said “I’ll give you a moment to settle, but this is important and we need to go over it”?

                I notice also that your issue has turned from seemingly being in your employee’s interest in the letter (eg trying to protect her from this weird act) to now criticizing her for wasting time and accusing her of trying to draw attention to herself.

                1. OP*

                  No, LBK you misread my original post. I was pointing out that cheek kissing was going on at my workplace and it made me feel weird as I hadn’t experienced it in the UK before and the female employee did not seem to mind. I wasn’t being protective of her nor did I think she was being taken advantage of. I left the performance issues out of the original post as I wanted to ascertain if the cheek-kissing was normal in most workplaces or was I being overly sensitive.

                  The majority of the comments said it was not normal and many women posters went as far as to say it creeps them out at work. I ran some stats through my head based on these comments and concluded that most female employees would not like cheek kissing if it was not the norm or culture at their workplace and it’s not the norm at my workplace either as it is only my female report who it happens to. I was worried that it “may” influence my hiring decision toward a male – hence I asked the question.

                  As more comments came in, I expanded my explanation with more details of the employee and her behaviour. I’ve concluded that the cheek-kissing was another manipulative behaviour in a list of behaviours that were detrimental to the team.

                  I’ve never greeted her with a kiss on the cheek, as others have, nor have I made her cry. I inherited this employee. I didn’t hire her.

                2. LBK*

                  Whoa, okay, this is just weird. Stop treating women like a herd of animals undergoing a biological study. Doing calculations? Running stats? She’s a person, not a math problem. She’s allowed to have her own preferencse for any damn reason she wants. Why are you assuming it’s solely for the purpose of manipulation? You’ve yet to give any examples of this “list of behaviors” other than a gut sense you’ve developed…which seems to be an extremely sexist gut sense.

                  I’m not really sure what inheriting her vs hiring her has to do with anything, nor whether you’ve kissed her on the cheek or not.

              2. LBK*

                Sorry for the double comment, just want to make this clear, because I don’t think I’ve said it explicitly yet: I completely agree that crying isn’t a good reaction to receiving feedback. I wouldn’t say unacceptable exactly, because it’s not usually something people can control, so it’s not usually productive feedback to tell someone never to cry.

                It’s specifically because I agree that crying isn’t how people should handle feedback that I think you abdicated your responsibility here. Part of being a manager is delivering feedback, even/especially bad feedback, and getting through it no matter how people react. If you think she was doing it to be manipulative, well, you just let yourself get manipulated! If you’re under the impression that she did it intentionally to get out of hearing something negative, and you’ve explicitly identified that, why did you do exactly what she allegedly wanted by letting her get out of it?

                You seem really frustrated that you and your other employee(s) had to clean up the mess without her, but there’s no reason you had to do that. You put yourself in that situation by coddling her.

                1. ZTwo*

                  Another +1. People can’t always control when they cry–it’s not work appropriate but sometimes it’s going to happen. The issue isn’t that she cried per se, it’s that her overall reaction (crying, maybe needing comfort, etc) took time away from the team’s ability to handle the problem and offer a solution. If she had wiped a few tears away in frustration, or excused herself to go to the restroom and have it out there and came back, it doesn’t seem like it would have been as big of an issue.

                  Don’t focus on a specific action (crying), focus on the root of what’s bothering you. “Don’t cry at work” is not something that you can track or offer feedback on or that someone can always help. “If a problem frustrates you, here’s the steps I need you to take” is a much more productive framing.

              3. TL -*

                Well, does any other employee engage in time-wasting behavior, such as chit-chat or talking about the latest video games or sports tournaments? If you’re not concerned about them, I wouldn’t be concerned about her (unless she’s not finishing her work, but that’s a pattern conversation.)

                And if she cries when you talk to her, you give her a moment to collect herself and then you keep talking because she deserves good feedback as much as any other employee.

                1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

                  Plus, it sounds like the cheek-kissing is the “time wasting” that’s going on. That’s being done TO her. She’s not doing it independently.

        2. TL -*

          But as your manager, it is your job to give her feedback, especially when you need to give harsh feedback. If you can’t do that because it makes someone upset or uncomfortable or makes them cry, then you’re probably not in a good position for your skillset.

          If she’s playing up her femininity, that’s not really a problem. If you’re treating her different because she is feminine, that is a huge problem.

      2. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

        Right. The sexism happening in this example is the OPs, not “reverse sexism” on the part of the female employee. He’s treating her differently based on her gender, and he’s reacting defensively as though she (or women in general) are the ones behaving unfairly.

    3. Michele*

      You really need to stop conflating your female employees with your daughters. Also, no matter what the media says, women do not cry to manipulate men. Typically, women would rather do anything than cry at work. However, the penalties for getting angry or speaking up for themselves are severe enough that they cry from frustration.

      1. PB*

        “Typically, women would rather do anything than cry at work.”

        I want to highlight this, as it’s so true and important. I have cried at work before. It’s not something I’m proud of, and something I’d generally avoid at all costs. Heck, when I found at my grandmother died while at work, I made a beeline for the door so I could cry outside where I was less likely to be seen.

        The problem is, no matter how much you might want to avoid it, sometimes the tears just come at work. It’s not an attempt at manipulation, and I certainly don’t expect special treatment because I’m crying. I can’t speak for your employee, OP, as I don’t know her, but it’s entirely possible that she’s having a similar experience.

        1. Gadfly*

          And there are actually some biological reasons that make it harder for women to not cry–Men just need to shut up, stop panicking, and deal with it as not the end of the world. A few tears shouldn’t be shutting you down. Be an adult about it, and unless she is wailing or a slobbery mess, a few tears should not be a problem or be unprofessional. It is that crap that glass ceilings are made of.

    4. TL -*

      Honestly, this sounds a lot like a, “She’s pretty and she knows it,” kind of derogatory comment. It’s not a problem for a woman to be feminine. It’s not a problem for her to behave more femininely or to be more affectionate or to encourage people to like her because she is feminine, as long as she remains professional (which it sounds like she has.)

      It is a problem that you feel like you have to treat a more feminine employee different than a less feminine employee. It’s also a problem if you hold it against your feminine employee that she is feminine and people like her; as long as she is professional, her behavior, however feminine, is fine.

    5. hbc*

      “I felt I could not be open and frank with her as to the causes of why the software failed. I had been noticing failures in processes she was not following before becoming her manager. Now those failures have caused a headache for all three of us, I feel my hands are (were) tied somewhat, in investigating those issues and preventing them from happening again.”

      Not to put too fine a point on it, OP, but this is on you. Whether or not her crying was intended to be manipulative (99.9% chance that it wasn’t), you allowed yourself to be manipulated. You had choices in the moment on how to behave, which might have included saying, “Why don’t you step outside, this isn’t productive, come back in when you can focus on resolving the problem.” But not everyone reacts well in the moment, so failing that, you still could have discussed those problems the next day, or the day after that–in addition to addressing her need to keep cool when fixing problems or exit if she can’t.

      1. Thlayli*

        I have cried lots of times when receiving feedback. I honestly can’t control it. I always apologise and say to ignore it and that I am listening and the better managers I have had have done just that and ignored it.

        1. OP*

          Hi Thlayli. I’m the original letter writer/poster. I have a question but I don’t want you to take it the wrong way, please.

          Q: Why do you cry at work? I know you said you can’t control it when receiving feedback but why does that lead you to cry?

          I’m asking because I’ve cried many times in my life. Tears come out when I’m overcome with emotion, such as the birth of my children or the death of someone close – to name just two out of the hundreds of times I cried. I’m not even ashamed to admit it. But why would you let “work” get through to you and make you upset?

          I see my job in many different lights but it doesn’t define me as a person. My personality defines me. My friends & family are what I hold dear. My friends & family can get through to me and upset me but work will never push me over that edge.

          I don’t place work in the same category of caring. I DO care about my work, don’t misunderstand me, I also care about my colleagues, my industry and our customers but not enough to allow it to push me to crying or upsetting me. I get stressed by work many times but I keep it out of inner core and refuse to let it upset me.

          The way I see it, work pay me for my knowledge, my time and my presence but not my inner core. I give that away for free to people who truly care for me and who I care for in return.

          1. Janice*

            Wait, what?

            You don’t give your workplace your ‘inner core’ so that means you aren’t emotionally invested in whether or not you could be fired and made homeless?

            Maybe some people find continuing employment important to sustaining their lives outside of work, and their families. Maybe that could make them emotional.

            Maybe women are more likely to cry due to emotions such as anger and frustration, either with their own performance or during times of high stress, and not just because they are sad.

          2. Stopyouarenthelping*

            Crying can be a response to feeling powerless. Feeling anxious that you can’t handle the situation. Feeling out of control. I urge you to abandon the theory that people at work cry to manipulate. I know I hate myself when it happens but I can’t help it. Read some psychology. You are a lot more sexist than you know. Are you google guy?

  36. Michele*

    I would put a stop to it even if the current female employee is OK with it. The reason is that future hires (and the OP is planning on hiring more women, right?) might have a problem with it and they should not be put in an uncomfortable position to start with.

    1. OP*

      I will hire the best candidate for the job regardless of the male or female. I have been humbled by you all for my craziness in ruling out women. But it was a craziness that lasted only a few short hours. :)

  37. kms1025*

    I have always hated the kissing, hugging thing with anyone except those family and friends that I choose to invite into my circle. However, I have never said anything. Guess I figured I was the weirdo for taking slight offense at this invasion of my space and just let it go. Glad to read that I am not the only one who wished this wasn’t some sort of norm :)

    1. Michele*

      You are definitely not alone. I hug my family and a few close friends, but I do not like touching people I don’t know well.

  38. Jules the First*

    My UK colleagues usually start with a handshake on the first meeting; cheek kissing us reserved for better friendships. Every French client, consultant, whatever has gone in immediately and always for the cheek kiss. Spanish and Italian contacts are more mixed – if we have spoken by phone a lot or met before, they’ll cheek kiss, if not, they’ll go for a handshake. The Dutch usually ask, or tend to shake if I’m the only woman in the room.

    I nearly punched the first (French) client that did it, but I’m mostly relaxed about it now because it’s a cultural thing I’m not going to get them to change.

  39. N.J.*

    Other commenters have touched on these different angles so I’m not sure if I’m adding anything new or just processing and synthesizing their points with mine. What I see here are two competing priorities. The respect of differing cultural norms versus avoiding sexist behavior. There are several comments here that identify cheek kissing as a normal function and practice within several cultures. It is extremely important to respect and understand others’ cultural practices and I agree that it can be looked upon as imposing your own cultural standards on others when you refuse to participate in their cultural practices. What I also see here though is the very real and essential need to not treat people differently in a professional setting based on gender. That is sexist.

    I think it can’t be stressed enough that the norms and “manners” set up by cultures and societies are based on a society’s collective beliefs and values. This example conditions the judgement of appropriate greeting activities or rituals on the idea that different genders can only be greeted properly in certain ways. Every single example we have discussed in this thread highlights that male to male contact would highly discourage kissing, but that this is the proper greeting when one or both greeters are women. In other words, it is perfectly acceptable by the set societal standards, as the acceptability is only judged on following the “rules” for the greeting. However, basing any conduct, social or professional, on the genders of the parties involved is sexist. It may not have a detrimental effect if all parties involve believe it is important to follow these rules, but it is still basing acceptable behavioral codes on the gender of the parties involved.

    Respecting culture, then, often involves implicitly accepting behavioral standard that are anathema to equality. This may sound hyperbolic, but it’s true. I place a very high importance on not disrespecting someone else’s beliefs and culture, so I’ve certainly found myself participating in cultural behavior patterns that are based on the idea that women receive deferential treatment in the “manners” department while being relegated to second class participation in society. For examples, cultures that require women to cover their heads when interacting with a man in a religious position, cheek kissing etc. Respectimg cultural practices can involve directly violating the belief that people shouldn’t be treated differently based on gender. I don’t have an asset as to how we solve that sort of direct opposition of purpose, but thought it was important to consider. As a woman, it has certainly occurred to me more than once that many of the things we put forth in societies as good manners are only viewed as such because our cultures our set up with different standards of conduct for different genders.

    1. LBK*

      I don’t have an asset as to how we solve that sort of direct opposition of purpose, but thought it was important to consider.

      Especially in the workplace, I think there’s a complex calculation you have to do when you’re in a situation like that, balancing factors like:

      1) how egregious the behavior is
      2) how long you’re likely to have to endure it (e.g. one meeting with someone you’ll never see again vs your coworker you could be with for years)
      3) location (whether you’re in the place where the tradition exists or it’s someone bringing their tradition to your location)
      4) how much political capitol you have in the situation (is the person a peer or the CEO of your company?)
      5) how much risk can you take (if it’s your boss, are you willing to risk being fired?)

      And others. That’s why I don’t like blanket rules about always always always calling out sexist/racist/etc behavior, because sometimes you personally aren’t in the right position to do it. But I think as more people slowly get into positions where they can afford to explicitly point out prejudiced behavior, the tide will start to turn.

      1. N.J.*

        Yes, well said. I agree that as people are in positions of power they will address these things more head on. I wanted to raise the idea that we can’t just say “respect culture” and assume it explains the appropriateness of behavior. Since we live in the real world, not the just world, we use factors like those you listed to navigate the potential benefits or fallout of challenging sexist behavior, and other -ist behavior, that has been clothed in propriety. I would love for everyone to critically evaluate the real purpose and basis behind cultural practices, though, before deciding they are proper or right, if only just to be aware that the practice is rooted in sexism etc. even if the mental calculus of addressing it would represent too great a risk.

        1. LBK*

          Totally agreed; I was more just reflecting on why it’s so hard to break people out of the “it’s tradition” or “it’s just cultural” thinking, because it’s really easy for someone to take it as an affront to suggest that something they’ve done and taken for granted their whole life is sexist. Thus, it’s a balancing act on how you handle it when you’re put into that situation like you describe.

          1. Lissa*

            I think part of why I find this frustrating is that we tend to accept sexist behaviour when “it’s culture” or “it’s tradition” in a way we really wouldn’t with other inequalities, which makes me have a personal reaction that sexism is being dismissed or looked on as something women “just need to deal with.”

            1. LBK*

              That’s not what I’m saying, though. I’m saying that expecting people to always call out sexist behavior isn’t fair because not everyone is in a position to take on the risk that accompanies pushing back on something that’s traditional or cultural.

              Again, not by any means saying that universally, everyone should just concede to tradition, or that “that’s how it’s always been done” is a good defense. It isn’t. I completely agree that sexist cultural standards are still sexist and they should be changed. But on an individual level, I don’t like the idea that everyone has a duty to push back, because that’s just not realistic.

              1. LBK*

                Oh – and I don’t like the idea that if someone decides that they can’t risk calling out sexist behavior, that means they’re accepting it or complicit in it. If you’re passively just letting it happen, sure, but sometimes you actively make a judgment call that you’re not in the right position to do it, and I don’t think people should be scorned for that.

              2. Lissa*

                Oh, yeah, I agree with you for sure. I was more just saying that I personally find it frustrating that as a whole it seems more accepted, not thinking anyone in particular is obligated to call it out. I probably wouldn’t, tbh. I’d just be quietly irritated. :D

                1. LBK*

                  Gotcha – I reread this and your comment above and I think I get what you’re saying now. I think some of it’s because the male/female traditions that have lived on tend to stem from benevolent sexism, and it’s harder to break people of habits and conventions that they believe they’re doing to be nice and polite.

                2. Lissa*

                  Yes, that’s it precisely. “Benevolent sexism.” It’s not that other types of bigotry don’t still happen, but with cultural gender-based behaviour like this there can be this real attitude of trying to make the different treatment a *positive* that doesn’t really happen in other situations. Both men and women do this. “But I like when men treat me with extra gentleness/affection/courtesy” is heard a lot, to which I always feel, OK, that’s nice for you but some of us are uncomfortable and at work the default should be neutral!

      1. N.J.*

        That’s certainly possible. All the examples I recall swing from commenters given here proscribed male/male kissing, though I may have missed one. Just because we didn’t discuss any in this thread doesn’t mean there aren’t cultures that encompass this dynamic. It just means that oftentimes if one can see a clearly gendered component to cultural practices, it is good to evaluate those practices with an investigative eye and really think about the values communicated by that practice. I’m not trying to make a pronouncement on whether any culture on the face of the earth includes male kissing greeting rituals or not, just pointing out that a kissing greeting is gendered in enough cultures as to be observable as an example of a gender based cultural practice and therefore prone to critical analysis as to sexism and/or the impact of that practice.

        1. TL -*

          There was definitely an mention of at least one man:man cheek kissing culture here – Argentine, I think, which is a rather large group of people. :)

          But it just adds another layer to think about when considering the practice.

    2. FitLady*

      Thank you for summarizing! I agree with your points, and with LBK. I don’t really have anything else to add but my agreement and appreciation for both of you distilling these issues succinctly.

  40. LittleLove*

    As someone with a crappy immune system, I like a nice nod in acknowledgement. Keep your germs to yourself,.

  41. Rachael*

    I’m a very big proponent of making sure that I’m not getting outraged “on behalf” of people. Always ask if the person, themselves, have concerns and let them know that you stand by whatever response they have without judgement. If she is okay with it then it is okay. If she is not, be her ally. Make sure that you give her time to mull over the question and not just answer with what she “should” say. She might laugh it off because it is customary, but she might reveal that it makes her cringe inside. Whatever the answer, stand by her.

    1. N.J.*

      It’s certainly important not to go all savior complex and white knight on people, and Alison’s advice to ask the female employee what she thinks about the practice is solid. I would argue that there is still value in and maybe a duty to comment on sexist and other -ist practices, when one can, regardless of whether we are the individual suffering from the practice. That would seem to be a core function of allyship and advocacy.

  42. Megan*


    Even if the woman isn’t uncomfortable with this greeting, it’s valid to find it uncomfortable yourself and ask it to stop – but that’s a whole other can of worms.

  43. Texas Engineer*

    This is EXTREMELY common in my industry (engineering) and in my region (Houston), but is typically within the Latino, Spanish, Hispanic, Latin, and South Americans. Kiss kiss on both cheeks in the morning between female colleagues. Weird for me at first to see this and hear this, but something I’ve grown accustomed to. NBD.

  44. Hello patriarchy*

    Woman is weirdly/creeping singled out for weird behavior, clearly gender-based. Boss man assumes she is OK with this, but is uncomfortable. Mentally penalizes woman who works for him, and plans to not hire more women in future. That sums it up nicely.

    1. Thlayli*

      Yup that’s it in a nutshell! Except we don’t know if she finds it creepy or if it’s something she’s ok with.

      Also in other comments OP said he thought she might have started the kissing thing herself “for sympathy” using her “feminine charm”. Just like she apparently cried “like a child” in order to get more “sympathy” when he criticised her work. She couldn’t possibly have been upset at having made a mistake because she cares about her work. Oh no, she’s just using her feminine charms to get sympathy again.

      Those pesky women! If only we could just deal with men all the time the world would be much simpler.

      1. excel_fangrrrl*

        fortunately for the OP, the “problem employee” had resigned. now they can get back to being an all boys club :)

        1. OP*

          Yep, no more pesky women.

          Hmmm… now do I hire a young or a middle-aged man or someone more senior because I need to take age into account?
          African American, English, Asian or European because you must have the right cultural fit?
          What if the applicant has a disability? That’s a no no as it will cost more money to adapt our workspace for him? At least it will be a Him though and not a pesky female. Decisions, decisions…

          Help me out here, ladies, as you seem to be experts at dectecting discrimination from a letter :)

  45. DMD*

    This is timely for me because I just visited Egypt and all the women greeted me with a kiss-kiss or a kiss-kiss-kiss on my cheeks, and I spent the entire two weeks trying to figure out if whoever I was greeting was going to do two kisses or three. I even finally asked one of the young ladies and she said even they don’t know, and it can be confusing. She asked me how we greet in the U.S. I told her, generally, a hand shake for colleagues and new intros, possibly a hug for a friend.

  46. Ummm ...*

    I work for a local newspaper and have developed many friends in the town where I work. Several months ago I was sitting near the door during a meeting I was covering and a city department head who was in the meeting finished with his part of it, walked out and kissed me on the cheek while on his way out. He and I are pretty good friends but that was a really awkward moment.

  47. Amberio Haynes*

    I am a senior professional woman based in Sydney, Australia. I find in the work place and work environments, most men respect my personal space and greet me the same as they would my male counterparts and I appreciate this. The arena I have challenge with is in my Board roles where male colleagues give me the “special ladies greeting”. It does invade my personal space and I don’t like it. They do not take non verbal cues like putting my hand forward to shake hands, they still go in for the kiss. I now say to them “I prefer not to greet my professional colleagues with a kiss but I welcome shaking your hand”. I have found this very useful and I hope that it also makes them self aware that other women may feel similarly awkward.

    I have come across one person – who is about 25 (I am in my 40’s) who continues to ridicule me for not kissing him, making statements like – “what is the world coming to when a bloke can’t kiss a woman”. To that I respond “I will consider allowing you to greet me with a kiss when I see that you are greeting the men on our board with a kiss also”

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