I saw my cousin Adam from across the synagogue. At six-foot-three and skinny as Ichabod Crane, he's hard to miss. The occasion was the baby-naming ceremony for his two-month-old twins. I came at him, right hand outstretched for a manly shake; he simultaneously coasted to me with both arms open for a familial bearhug. We pfumphed our way to something midway between the two. It was awkward.
A few hours later, when it was time for goodbyes, I didn't want to compound my faux-pas. Adam is a gentle soul with the world's sweetest disposition, and his momentary flicker of confusion and disappointment when we'd initially greeted each other weighed heavily on me. This time I opened both arms. But he leaned his face toward me. A hug and a kiss? Is this what male cousins do these days at a celebration like this? Dammit -- did I blow it again?
It's never easy. Two weeks earlier I went to the Stamford Station to pick up Jack, my fraternity brother and college roommate. I was pretty confident a bro hug was in order. Trouble was what happened before the bro hug. I sailed up to him with fingers balled for a fist bump; his hand was wide open for a conventional handshake. Eventually we got to a reasonably effective bro hug, but the whole operation had already been botched.
The young dudes, the ones my sons' age, are a lot better at all this. They seem to be able to sense from the hand's height and angle at approach that it's going to be one of those macho soul handshakes followed by the slide and the pop, accompanied, of course, by a bro hug -- either the hearty kind with a double backslap, or the perfunctory NBA-style shoulder bump with a slight head lean-in. The point is, they know what's coming. They're on the same page. They look like they're in a Bud Light commercial.
Where it gets tricky is when you mix one of these young bloods with a slightly older gentleman. Like myself, in January, when all of Robby's friends were home from college and hanging around our house. Here's good old Nick. I'm all ready for that high-flying hand-grab, but, uh-oh! Nick's set up for a traditional handshake. Our hands are on different planes! Trajectory is off. We're all screwed up.
And this is the kind of confusion that reigns when it's just guy-on-guy. What happens when you introduce a woman into the mix? For couple-friends-around-town, it used to be a no-brainer: A quick hug, followed by a kiss on the cheek.
Leave it to Inge -- Nick's mother -- to screw things up.
Inge is our Dutch friend. She, quite naturally, tends to go with the left-cheek-right-cheek kiss-kiss, European style. Fine. I'm down with that. Then she introduced a third kiss. What was that about?
I tried to puzzle this out with Volker and Claudia, my wife's German client/friend and his wife. They confirmed that, yes, two is standard -- for a casual acquaintance. But that three is appropriate for a closer friend.
Oh. So now we're into subtle gradations.Is she a friend? Or is she something more? Now doesn't that make for a comfy situation? And are we talking air kisses? A quick peck on the cheek? Do we ever head straight for the lips?
I'm sure you've sensed this, but I'm a guy who likes to know where he stands. I mean, seriously. We can put a man on the moon. We have smartphones, my wife tells me, that can sense when some busybody is peeking over your shoulder, and can tilt the image so he can't see what you see. So isn't there some way for a guy to indicate that he just wants an old-fashioned handshake and a light pat on the back, or for a woman to show that we're going with a quick hug and a single cheek-peck?
Is that too much to ask?
"The Home Team" appears every other Friday. You can also keep up with Hank's adventures with his dog, Ricky, on his blog, "Beagle Man," on the Westport News website, at http://blog.ctnews.com/beagleman/ To reach Hank, email him at DoubleH50@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @BeagleManHank.