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America is a culture that cannot agree on how to end an evening. Some people are huggers. Some peck, some shake. Ed and I were at a dinner party last week that was particularly treacherous, in that it combined old friends and total strangers, each requiring a different skill set. Ed is better at this, and I turned to him for guidance.

The first to leave was our friend Laurie. "Kisser-hugger," whispered Ed. "No problem there." Her friend Jim was trickier. We'd met him only once, and though I had a dim memory of him as a hugger, I couldn't say for sure what kind. There's full-body frontal, lip/cheek, cheek/cheek, and there's combo. I stepped closer to Jim, imagining a panel of judges off to the side and a team of commentators speaking in hushed tones. "It looks like they're getting ready for a single-side, lateral cheek press with shoulder clasp. That's got a difficulty factor of 5. Let's see how Roach does. In the past she's had trouble with her finish." I pictured them wincing quietly. "That's going to be tough to recover from."

Other cultures have managed to agree upon a national protocol for greetings and farewells, and they simply get on with it. The French kiss each other twice, perhaps because no one else will. The Dutch at some point trumped the French with a triple cheek buss. The English, my people, will step closer and raise their arms to your shoulders while simultaneously leaning away, imparting a vague impression of affection while at the time suggesting it's quite possible they find your kind repellent.

Cross-cultural goodbyes are especially trying. I once met a French Canadian author in an airport and spent a pleasant hour chatting with him. When his flight was called, we stood up to say goodbye. I went for a peck, but because he had turned his head in preparation for a double-cheek press, my mouth collided with the side of his nose. We rushed to make corrections, but it was like trying to steady a plummeting jetliner. The embrace spiraled out of control and crashed to the floor. Black smoke billowing from the departures hall for days. (来源:英语麦当劳 http://www.EnglishCN.com)

Cross-generational hugs are also tricky, as I learned with Laurie's mother the other night. A kiss or hug might seem inappropriate, but a handshake might be taken as standoffish.

"Let her make the first move," whispered Ed.

I worried that she might be plotting the same thing. Ed acknowledged that that was a problem, in that we'd both be awkwardly standing there. "High noon in a Clint Eastwood movie" was how he put it.

So I made the first move. I flipped my poncho over one shoulder and removed the cigar. I was going for a cheek/cheek. Though people refer to this as a kiss, it is technically an embrace. It is physically impossible to kiss someone else's cheek while he or she is kissing yours, unless you have highly elastic, protuberant lips. Orangutans can manage the simultaneous cheek kiss, but have the good sense not to bother.

The rest of the table had stood up and begun gathering their coats. We were toward the back of the pack. A man with whom I hadn't exchanged a word was drawing near.

"Hug," Ed whispered urgently. "If you're at the end of the line, and everyone in front of you has been doing the hug, you have no choice. You have to go to the hug."

So I hugged the man, perhaps a bit too exuberantly. He extracted himself as quickly as he could without actually pushing me away. The judges shook their heads sadly.

I can't tell you how happy I was to get home, where the people I love come and go without any of this fuss, unless one of us is heading off for, say, a year in Tripoli. "See ya!" "Bye!" It's so wonderfully simple.
 
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