Spending time with other people is great — but there's one part of social gatherings that leaves many of us cringing. If you're not super-close with someone, you might not know how to greet them, or how to properly part ways. Many people will use physical actions to greet someone or to bid them goodbye. But if you don't know what to expect, things can get awkward, fast. And while it's tricky enough to dodge an unwanted hug, things can get even worse when you add cheek kisses and air kisses into the mix. When my editor pitched this story, she said that recently a lot of her friends have inexplicably started trying to air kiss her when they greet her — and she doesn't know why. To get to the bottom of this phenomenon, we talked to Lizzie Post, spokesperson for the Emily Post Institute and co-host of the Awesome Etiquette podcast. Unfortunately, there's no black-and-white answer for why people might try to air kiss (or cheek kiss) you — it depends a lot on the social cues they grew up with and how they were raised. But there are ways you can make things less awkward for both of you. "It's funny how it really is among certain groups. My girlfriends and I don't air kiss, but we give hugs. We always give hugs hello, and sometimes there'll be a kiss on the cheek that comes with it," Post says. "But my family... it's all hugs and air kisses. And I know for other people, it's just air kisses, and for other groups, there's no air kisses. So you just kind of have to feel out what your friends are into." As for the times when you're not with your inner circle, though, feeling things out might be more of a challenge. Post recommends giving subtle hints through body language, rather than starting an even more awkward conversation (i.e., "Hey, if you could not air kiss me, that'd be great.")
Post suggests "extending your hand to shake" before a hug is initiated. Or, if the other person goes in for a hug, you can "lean in enough that you're not in cheek-to-cheek territory." That way, you're creating a sort of barrier that prevents cheek or air kissing. And if you do want to give someone a physical embrace? Cheek kisses are a safer bet than air kisses, which can appear disingenuous if the person you're embracing isn't used to them. But if you're with a group (say, your mom's friends) who have been air kissing for years, it might not come off that way at all. Understanding your audience is key — and if you go in for a hug, cheek kiss, or air kiss and someone pulls away, honor those physical cues. "So many people are used to giving a hug as a greeting for hello and goodbye that they just automatically go in for it," Post says. But if you're not a natural hugger, that doesn't mean your social interactions are doomed for life. "A good exit doesn't have to involve a point of touching," Post says. A simple handshake, or even a wave, will signify to the other person that you're not a hugger, but you won't come off as rude, either.