It was a Friday night. My co-workers and I were getting a special perk -- a black tie dinner to celebrate my radio station's 90th anniversary. We were all dressed up -- guys in tuxes and gals in their best black dresses. It was a celebratory mood. We hugged and laughed as we made our way through the crowd to accept our honors. I saw one of my colleagues standing off to the side. We are very close, having worked on many projects together in the newsroom. I went to say hi and extended my hand in a handshake.
"You're shaking my hand?" he asked incredulously, knowing it was a silly gesture for someone he knows so well. So I leaned in for a peck on the cheek and to my surprise, he pulled back. Almost a whiplash head back. Awkward moment. Later he would tell me "I don't do kisses. I'll do hugs. But not kisses."
So just what is the appropriate etiquette when your suited up place of business goes into the ballroom? Do you hand shake? Hug? Back slap or give the social smooch on the cheek?
"I think it should stay consistent with what you do in the office," says Candace Reese, with Envision Strategic Management in Atlanta. "The change of attire shouldn't make a difference."
A poll of my co-workers found everyone has their own style. My big, big boss who attends many social functions is a smoocher. Gosh, he must have smooched me several times that night just as a friendly gesture with his lovely wife nearby. My other boss I would never even hug. I know he is socially shy and would feel awkward. But how are you supposed to know where the boundaries are?
"Read the person," says Candace. "As soon as you extend your hand you're going to see whether they are receptive to it or not."
Etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore, who has been involved in many "air kisses" at Palm Beach gatherings for 19 years, has a different take...
"You can be a little more carefree and fun at business events. You have to be careful, though. If you hug someone who's not accustomed to being hugged you may get a wrong reaction."
I confess. I am a hand shaker, a hugger and a smoocher. I've been to social events all over the country and learned this is part of the protocol. I am comfortable with it but now realize others are not. I remember the first time I met Arianna Huffington. She clasped on to my extended hand with both of her hands for a long time, affirming our greeting in her European style. Very lovely. But wouldn't work in U.S.
We'd want our arm back.
Two manly men in my newsroom set me straight on the bro hug. I never realized it had a certain distinction. It's okay for men to hug, they said, but it must -- must -- include a hard slap or pat on the back at least two times to distinguish from a different type of er, man hug...
Other advice from my experts? Men, let women initiate the greeting. Moving in with a hug or smooch first may give the wrong impression.
A firm handshake is a universally accepted greeting.
"It shows authority, confidence, (that you're) interested in meeting and greeting and shows respect for the other person," says Whitmore, adding, you must stand up for a handshake.
Author Ann Zhang, author of Doing Business in China, weighed in with the foreign perspective.
"It really depends on the cultural context and how close you are to the person," she wrote.
"In China, handshake is appropriate. In Europe, where people are more relaxed about body touch. In the U.S., people are cautious about overly intimate act.."
Then she throws in, "Depends on how well I know the person, kisses (two in general, but three in Switzerland) would be totally okay. Three kisses for the Swiss?
Having traveled to Asia, I think my favorite greeting of them all is the humble bow in Japan given by all walks and class of life. I got bows from the doorman; the person on the street and the corporate businessman alike. Very safe. Respectful. And no hand, lips or other body parts ever have to touch.