You’re walking down the street with your Latvian friend, chatting away (or at least you are), when you bump into one of their friends. You smile and get ready for the introduction. Your smile slips a little as they talk – still no introduction. You shuffle about a bit, feigning interest in some leopard print accessories in a nearby shop window – still no introduction. They say their goodbyes, the friend walks off, and you carry on walking as if the whole thing never happened.
You: Who was that?
Jānis: A friend.
While this may seem rude, you should actually be grateful that you’ve been spared the rigmarole of the Latvian greeting process. I’ve touched on this before but really, I only scraped the surface of the myriad ways it’s possible to greet/offend a Latvian. The other day, I received a
comment wall of text so long that, after my head stopped spinning, I decided that it deserved a post all to itself. So here it is, the definitive guide to greeting a Latvian…
When a man meets another man:
a) ‘Sveiki/Labdien’ + handshake + saying one’s name – they’re meeting each other for the first time ever. This must be done seriously, no stupid smiling! The handshake must be strong, but not too long. This is official. It’s a bad sign to forget the other person’s name, so listen carefully! (They’re probably called Jānis so you’ll be OK here.)
b) ‘Sveiks’ + handshake – they know each other already, they are colleagues or neighbours, but are not considered to be very close. This is done ONLY once a day, a little smile is acceptable, but not mandatory. Same rules for the handshake apply. No hugs, and for sure NO kisses. There is no reason to repeat this procedure on the same day. (I’m not sure how little a ‘little smile’ is but probably better to err on the side of caution.)
c) ‘Čau/Sveiks večuk’ + handshake + smiling – they know each other very well, probably friends or relatives, could be colleagues as well. At this point a hug is not prohibited (still, you may expect some “big eyes”), but no bloody kissing, otherwise you’ll be considered gay! Why would anyone want to do this again on the same day? (Being considered gay in Latvia is not a good thing, in case you were curious.)
d) ‘Čaaau’ + handshake + wide smiles – they are close friends. The handshake may last rather a long time. Hugging is totally OK, but no, do not expect them to kiss each other, or else… This is rather a long action, no need to repeat it! (Or else…)
Note: If these two meet again on the same day:
Cases A and B – do not expect them to say or do anything with regards to greeting. OK, you may nod…
Cases C and D – you can do nothing, or just say “atkal čau!” (hi again). But no handshakes, no hugs. I mentioned the kisses already. (Kissing is bad, in case you forgot.)
When a man meets a woman:
In general, it is the same except that the man does not offer his hand for a handshake, but waits for the lady. If she is willing to shake hands, she will proffer her hand first. Good manners require the man to be aware of his own power and not to “wreck” her palm. (Latvian men are very powerful as a rule…)
A few exceptions – you may smile a little, even in cases A and B, especially if you like what you see. Kissing is allowed in case D, rarely in case C. But don’t get too excited about it, or else… well, you don’t want to risk being considered a gay but her boyfriend or husband may not tolerate it.
So there you have it. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. You now have no excuse for walking around Latvia committing the same faux pas I’ve been committing for the last three and a half years – smiling and saying ‘hello’ when you see someone you know. This is not acceptable…