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Gilles Debunne may be a Frenchman, but even he has trouble working out how many cheeks to kiss as he travels around France.

The 40-year-old software engineer from Toulouse said that when he meets someone from another part of the country “there is always this awkward moment where you don’t know if you need to stop. Or, if you continue to the next cheek, what happens?” That’s because the number of cheeks varies widely across France from as little as one in western parts of Brittany to four in the Loire Valley.

La bise, as it’s known, is most common between opposite sexes and among women. With men it’s often a question of familiarity (close friends and family may expect a kiss, but a new business partner probably won’t). 

To gain clarity on the matter, the computer wizz devised a method to put himself at ease: an interactive map of kisses in France.

Debunne’s colour-coded map is divided by French departments, or geographical administrative divisions, and constantly updated as people across France vote on how many kisses — one, two, three, four or even five — is the norm in their region. It’s registered more than 100,000 votes since it first went online in 2008, and has become the definitive source on cheek kissing in the French-language media.

Though Debunne’s survey helps to put France’s hyperlocal greetings in perspective for visitors, cultural mores are never quite so simple in practice. Be it a clumsy kiss, a surprise hand-hold or a botched bow, running the gauntlet of global greetings is all too often a humbling experiment in trial and error.

The kissing conundrum 

In countries like the US, England and Germany it’s standard practice to greet with a firm handshake.  So when American Stephen Rinaldi, 25, arrived in Italy in April to work at a country residence in the Abruzzo region, he was initially quite nervous about all the cheek-kissing.

His game plan from the start was to go on the defence by only playing the role of the “kissee,” or the one who’s kissed. It was a matter of days before Rinaldi realised his method was flawed. He began observing others and found that “you always kiss both cheeks and it seems that you go right check, then left. And there is no real direct touch of the lips to the cheek; it’s more like a cheek-to-cheek embrace with a kissing sound.”

With this knowledge of the air kiss in mind, the American went straight for the cheek when he first met the matriarch of the country residence. The greeting was an overwhelming success, so he mistakenly decided to replicate it with her husband.

“He immediately went for a handshake and it turned into something like the awkward hug at the end of the Will Ferrell movie ‘Step Brothers’.” From this incident, Rinaldi learned another important lesson: Unless he knew the male in front of him very well, a handshake was best.

Holding hands

One place where there is absolutely no kissing between opposite sexes in public is the United Arab Emirates. But don’t be at all surprised if you see two men holding hands or kissing each other on the cheek.

“Kissing on the cheek is common between Arabs of the same gender, but showing intimacy with the opposite gender in public is frowned upon, and a punishable offence in some locations,” said Kashif A, who works as a freelance digital marketing consultant in Dubai and frequently writes about cultural differences on his website, Dubai Expat Blog.

If two people of the same gender are holding hands he said, “they should be considered as good friends.”

That’s exactly what former US president George W Bush discovered when he met the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia in 2005. Photographs of the two holding hands went viral, sparking a conversation about the connection between hand-holding and building bonds in the Arab world.

How low can you go?

In some countries it’s neither kissing nor holding hands that foreigners should be aware of. In China, for instance, it’s quite common to be greeted with a light handshake and the question “have you eaten yet?” This isn’t actually an invitation to a meal, but rather a way of asking, “how are you?”

Over in Japan one must master the layered meanings and unspoken rules of bowing.

“I truly became a master of the bow when I arrived deep in the countryside in the heart of conservative Japan,” recalled English teacher Siobhan Sullivan of San Francisco. “But it wasn’t a personally selected mission. In fact, it was my extremely stoic school principal who, in thinly-veiled disgust at my bow to him, asked to see me in his office.”

Siobhan Sullivan learned an important lesson living in Japan. (Credit: Siobhan Sullivan)

The problem was all in the eyes. The 28-year-old maintained eye contact and bobbed her head down, but the principal felt like she was disrespectfully gawking at him. She learned to avert her eyes, put her arms firmly by her side and bend at the waist lower than her superior.

“I had been unmercifully swiping the ‘get-out-jail-free' card that is being a foreigner in Japan,” she said. But after the lesson, her co-workers complimented her on her bowing skills and even asked her to correct students who made lackadaisical attempts during the pre-class ritual of bowing to the teacher. Suddenly, she found herself on the other end of the aisle, asking her students to repeat their bows until she was completely satisfied that they were up to par. 

Following the leader

Travelling to new countries for work or leisure can often feel like a finishing school test in global etiquette, but there are two simple steps everyone can take to assure greetings are as smooth as possible.

“Always let the other person start and always follow suit,” said Ann Marie Sabath, author of the book Business Etiquette: 101 Ways to Conduct Business with Charm and Savvy. 

Sabath said if in doubt it’s best to err on the side of caution when you first meet, “but don’t be surprised if the greeting changes once you’ve made an initial connection.” After all, you never know when that handshake may turn into a kiss, a bow or a walk down the street, hand in hand.

Have you made a greeting faux paux while traveling? Share your story with BBC Capital by heading over to our Facebook page or messaging us on Twitter.

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