Rules of Engagement

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. 

You: Umm.

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…

Don't do this.

Don’t do this.

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…

About BerLinda

Adjusting to life in Germany, after living in Latvia for four years. Should be easy, right?
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120 Responses to Rules of Engagement

  1. Ezgi Sönmez says:

    I’ve lived in Riga for 6 months and my boyfriend is Latvian and soon i will move there, as a Turkish girl, their no-kissing or no-introduction stuff was really weird for me at the beginning. Thank you for this blog, i think i will read them all soon. 🙂

    • Expat Eye says:

      Hi Ezgi! There’s certainly plenty of material for you to read! I’d imagine it will be a bit of a shock to the system for you! I still find it strange after 3.5 years 😉 Linda.

  2. Wow. That is quite the process with so many rules! Maybe easier if I understood the language?

    I haven’t experienced the same that Bev has here in Germany. I typically only see the hand shaking when people are first meeting or if they haven’t seen each other in awhile. I have had the kisses either on one check or both. I just go with the flow! The one I find funny is how Germans say hello and goodbye to everyone in the doctor office waiting room. 🙂

  3. annelleo says:

    The thing I know about Latvians is- when we smile it’s real. I lived in Italy for a year and there was this kissing and saying “ciao!” all the time, but most of the time it felt fake. When you see a Latvian smile- it’s special. The same- when you hear a Latvian saying “How was your day?” He is interested and not just asking, because it’s polite. In Germany, for example, they say “Hello, how are you?” all the time, but no one is expecting you to answer “Bad.” So no one actually listens to your answer(at least that’s how I see it).
    And about introducing people on the street, mostly we don’t do that, because we don’t want that conversation to last too long.
    And perhaps it’s just me, but I think we, latvians, hug more often than shake each other hands. At least at my age. But about men you are right- you don’t usually see them kissing each other.
    I find your blog very entertaining- keep going! 🙂

  4. On days that I make it through public transport without smiling at someone, I consider myself a legit Belgian.
    Oh! And I found out that the Christmas tree tradition started in Latvia! might have covered this..but I read it over the holidays and got more excited than I should have that I know more about your city!

  5. I’d love to see an Latvian man (or is it Lithuanian) meeting an Argentinian man. Kisses all around!

  6. 1WriteWay says:

    And in the US, greetings are different based on the region you’re in. Here in the South, I’ve had the displeasure of shaking hands so limp that I had to wonder if I had grabbed the wrong limb … which would be even more perplexing when shaking the (limp) hand of a woman 🙂

  7. noveerotaaja says:

    Looking forward to a follow-up post how do women meet in Latvian then 🙂

    • Expat Eye says:

      Girl 1: (looks girl 2 up and down)
      Girl 2: (glares and does same)
      Girl 1: (grabs boyfriend/husband closer)
      Girl 2: (sneers)
      Latvian Girl Death Stares all round – men are oblivious
      Done 😉

  8. bevchen says:

    If you meet up with Germans, you have to shake hands when you arrive and again when you leave. I still find it weird to shake hands with everybody at the table even after 7 years :-/

    • Expat Eye says:

      They shake hands with women too? Do you have to offer your hand first or it’s automatic with everyone? Here the women have to make the first move – as with most things 😉

      • bevchen says:

        Everyone shakes hands with everyone… men with men, women with women, women with men. The men must initiate it because if they’d all waited for me to make the first move they’d probably still be waiting now… Once you know people beter, there can be hugging, at least between two women and between woman/man. Men will only hug close friends if they’re going away for months or something. Oh, and because I live close to the border with France, some people do the cheek kissing thing. Thankfully only one person does that with me!

      • Expat Eye says:

        In the words of Elvis – a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on 😉

  9. Pēteris says:

    When I come home, I announce my presence with a “Ča-au”. Same when I want others to know that I’m leaving. In the morning, I greet my family with “Čauu” or “‘brīt”. If we’ve greeted each other in the morning, it’s unnecessary to do that again when we come home.

    At school and at university I always shook hands with all my male classmates. But now at work I don’t do that anymore, no idea why. At work we always greet each other with “Čau”.

    • Expat Eye says:

      Ha, I’ve never heard of just ‘brīt’ before – the ‘la’ is too much effort?! 😉 My male students all shake each others’ hands when they come into the room – not sure if they do it in the office to each other though! Linda.

      • Antuanete says:

        My teacher of Latvian grammar and literature used to say “Latvians are lazy people”, when explaining some specifics of pronunciation and changing consonants in grammar forms. So, yes, “labrīt” is too much sometimes 🙂

      • Expat Eye says:

        Ha, well, I guess it is morning – I’m not at my best then either 😉

  10. Judith says:

    I find the London greeting confusing as well. If it is an acquaintance, then you kiss on each cheek. If it is a friend you kiss on one cheek and give a big hug. If you are greeted by a friend from The Netherlands, then you have to remember to kiss three times – or is it four – twice on each cheek. Very confusing. I like the way Latvians always stride up to each other and shake hands firmly. Perhaps you may want to discuss etiquette for crossing on a pedestrian crossing. In London, we wave and smile at the driver. I do this in Liepaja and have a chuckle as the startled driver looks at me. The same happens each time I hold the door open at the supermarket, to allow the person after me to walk through, without slamming it in their face. That is my biggest gripe. But it too is changing, as from time to time people do hold the door open. One thing the Latvian men do very well, is they are happy to pick up your luggage for you and carry it for you. I know many European women who have become so used to carrying their own luggage they are very surprised by this token.

    • Expat Eye says:

      Yeah, they like ‘gestures’ – like helping you with your coat etc. I’d rather they didn’t barge into me on the street or slam doors on me though! 🙂 Ah, I like smiling and waving at drivers as I cross the street – their confusion makes my day 😉

  11. Jeez Louise what a process, I’ll keep my eyes low and hand even lower so it can’t be wrecked!

  12. linnetmoss says:

    As an American, it’s hard for me to fathom a culture where smiling is frowned upon when two people meet (for a second, a third time on the same day–maybe after that you have permission to ignore each other). But yes, a French person once mentioned to me that Americans smile all the time like fatuous fools! But at the same time, I notice that Latvian men seem to hug a lot more than American men.

  13. Dāvis says:

    So I’ve been reading your blog for a quite while now, not regularly but just randomly decide to see if you got something interesting 😀 And I must say some things are really true. Overall your blog is very good and funny most of time 😛 But for couple of things as Latvian myself I’m like “why would you want it to be different, what’s there not ok?” 🙂 Anyway congrats and keep it up. Really good read and sometimes hilarious. You’re making it all kinda amusing 😛

    By the way just today read this article and I think it’s partly true also here in Latvia 😉

    • Expat Eye says:

      Very interesting! This made me laugh – Americans smile as if they were plugged into the wall 😉 And Russians don’t feel the need to smile at children or house pets – for the Irish, that’s usually an ice-breaker 😉 I agree that it’s partly true here as well! Thanks for your comment and for reading! Nice to know I have a fan out there 😉 Linda.

  14. Jarro says:

    That’s one side of the coin.
    There is the other, how Latvians except and evaluate greeting.
    For example, I would never wish you find out what is the result if you go to see your mother in law, but when you arrive at her house the first thing is not “LAAABDIEEEN!!!” across the yard, while your feet are still in the car, and has not touched the ground.
    OK, maybe I exaggerate this, your feet can be outside the car and on the ground……, (one feet).

    I would think that if a person not greet’s you once – “OK, he did not notice me”
    Second time – “He must be really busy”
    Third time – “Is he rude?…. No no no, must be something else”
    How Latvian sees this:
    1st time – “He’s rude”
    2nd time – “He’s really rude, I will not greet him ever again”
    3rd time – “Persona non grata, I will try to avoid him”

    So whenever you hear “Vai tad jāsveicinas nav?”, know that first impression has failed, and next half a year there is no chance to change it.

    From this we can see few other things – Latvians like to talk bad about others but
    (2nd thing) such description would never ever describe myself.

    On the bright side I know some other nations who are even worse!
    (Please see 5 lines higher)


    • Expat Eye says:

      Ha ha! Aw, I like the Germans! They’re not as smiley as some nationalities but they have a good sense of humour! Granted I’ve never lived there so I can only judge by my few days in Berlin and the Germans that I meet abroad – they’re usually great people though! I’ll have to go there again and see if you’re right… 😉 A few people have said the Finns are much worse but I don’t think I’ve ever met one!

  15. I. says:

    Quite a funny post. I would like to add that I think it is completely okay to smile to people you know – even if they are not good friends. I personally smile a lot =) Just do not be too frustrated, if your beaming smile is returned only by a shy one. I guess I just do not care that I am more open than my Latvian peers, as I am used to it, so I keep smiling and everyone seems happy about it =)

  16. pollyheath says:

    My American, raised-in-a-small-town brain has been blown by all of this. I may be one of the least friendly Americans there are, but I still can’t help the smile.

  17. nancytex2013 says:

    This: “a little smile is acceptable, but not mandatory.” was bloody fantastic! Made me laugh out loud.

  18. eNVee says:

    Hmm…, I see what you have done there! 😀

    Sounds strange that you were not introduced. I guess that was something individual. We are taught to introduce others with people we are together. To be honest – I have bad memory for the names and I have been in a situation where I have to do the introduction part, but can’t remember someones name. That sucks badly. Any suggestions?

    For adding some balance to all this – yes, you can always smile and nod and say hallo, even 5 times a day. No one should be offended, at least as soon as they find out that you are not latvian… 😀
    Main reason why people don’t do this and many other such things – they are shy. A pint of ale or alus should do the trick!

    On a serious note, I completely agree with this part of Ligas comment: “It is a very stupid situation to be in, and well, by sounding a bit arrogant, I think those are manners perfected depending on how much of the world people have seen in combination of understanding it.” Spot on and 100% true.

    • Expat Eye says:

      She’s a smart girl 😉 And I have you to thank for this post! Keep your comments coming! I was looking forward to your comment on this one 😉 I don’t really have any tips for remembering people’s names – I’m pretty good at it, being a teacher. I sometimes have to remember 10-12 names after only one or two meetings 😉

  19. Paul says:

    The other “no no” here is not to shake hands as you enter someone’s house or apartment, wait until you are inside..

    From years of experience in the UK and around the world I’ve learnt to wait for the other person to offer their hand for a handshake.. (some people don’t like shaking hands).. and as happened once, they might not have a hand!

    Have you noticed that here in Latvia that your “personal space” when queuing at Rimi etc is much smaller.. sometimes almost to the point of intimacy if you’re a queue fidget like me 🙂

    I once got fed up waiting around like a muffin and decided to interrupt and introduce myself!.. .. it cost me many hours of silent treatment only ending at the checkout of her favourite shoe shop!

    • Expat Eye says:

      You went into my spam folder for some reason – lucky I checked it!

      Yeah, the personal space thing in supermarket queues drives me nuts – I’ve had people practically wheeling their trolley/buggy over me. Or reaching over me for cigarettes or gum instead of waiting another maybe 30 seconds until I’ve moved on. GRRRRRR. 😉 Didn’t know about the waiting until you’re inside to shake hands thing – more rules!! My head is going to explode haha! 🙂

      • wasd says:

        I could throw some explanations here 🙂
        About handshake – we do not shake hands if one of involved persons stands outside of the door, that is considered bad luck, Firstly you will get invited inside, or if person dont know you, he will step outside, to greet you by handshake.
        Handshake must be noticably strong and manly, but not at the point where you seem to trying hard for impression. There are regions outside of Riga, where in the time of handshake, you must make eye contact as sign of respect (can be hard, because of possibility of missed handshake).

        About tight lines in shops, and usualy people panicking ount when the bus comes in the buss station. This could be some old vounds from Soviet times, because usualy when you wanted to get something good, you had to stand long lines (even for sausages). This feeling, that you may not got to the end of the line, seems to be stuck from that time. They seem to forgot, that buss will never sell more tickets than its possible, and if you have ticket with a number you will get a seat. Or that the line will continue to move, and people will notice that you are in line.

        It has happened to me multiple times, when I pay by card, person after me already stands right aside till, because you have to go forvard to pay by card than till itself. That is a perfect recepie for awkward situation.

        Samething happens, when you see multiple Latvians making lines in airports.

        There is something to learn from Irish peace and calmness.

      • Expat Eye says:

        Ha, I don’t know about that but there’s definitely room for improvement! 🙂 Thanks for the info! You’ve cleared a few things up! Linda.

  20. alliblair says:

    Oh my, lol. That’s fascinating but also really funny 😛

  21. Daina says:

    You are SUCH an astute observer of human nature and traditions – another great post!

    Because I’ve grown up in the Latvian-American community, which is not very large and where most everyone knows everyone (or at least their brother or best friend), introductions are mandatory. An old Latvian-American teacher I knew was always very frustrated when people visiting from Latvia would only give their first name: Kristine. Janis. Evita. Martins. She’d always ask what their last name was. I’m presuming (but don’t know!) that this custom is a leftover/holdover from Soviet times when you didn’t want anyone to have more personal information than absolutely necessary. But Latvians are so few in number that it is no wonder we are all related, and thus last names can give one useful information.

    True story: a woman from Latvia who was working in my city for a couple of years and I were chatting….I mention my half-cousin’s name…and it turns out this woman’s aunt used to be married to my half-cousin’s son. Yep, it’s a small, small world when you are Latvian!

    And to follow-up on your post about superstitions – have you seen this?

    • Expat Eye says:

      Ha ha! They’re great 😉 I especially liked number 7! That’s funny about your half-cousin! I’d say that sort of thing happens in Ireland a lot too – especially in the country!

  22. Glynis Jolly says:

    I’m probably older than most of your readers so bear with me here. When I was a kid, here in the US, two people meeting for the first time meant shaking hands, saying hello, introducing yourself, and a small smile if you wanted to. Nowadays you’re lucky to get “Hey” as you keep on walking by them. Common courtesy and general good manners have gone by the wayside. We’ve become rude, crude, and socially unacceptable. Very sad, indeed.

    • Expat Eye says:

      Aw, I’m really sad to hear that. American people have always been so polite and friendly to me whenever I’ve visited. Although I was talking to another American last week and he pretty much said the same thing you did – they’re thinking of moving here 😉

  23. Anna says:

    Dare I say, I am pleasantly surprised by the inter-gender handshakes. Still very much a rarity in Russia, even in a professional environment. Go Latvia!-?

  24. Ah, the all-important greeting. I get so confused. I got used to air kisses in London and when an Australian male friend visited us there he nearly backed himself over the verandah upon the initial greeting and fell four stories to his death. (You man-slaughtered me at “hello”. Lines you don’t hear in popular movies.)

  25. Antuanete says:

    As far as I am concerned, smile and “hello” won’t do any harm to anyone, except in very official meetings (or with very shy people). Nevertheless, kisses are indeed for very close friends, and only to woman/woman or man/woman greetings (I can’t imagine why two men should kiss each other upon meeting :))
    As for greeting person again in the same day – I wouldn’t do it, because it would mean I have forgot that I greeted him or her already! Some smile and nod, though, is useful in such situation.

  26. RuncZ says:

    I guess I’m used to it so much that I can’t even imagine how else one should behave. 😀 Perhaps you could also make some comparison with whatever you feel is good and acceptable in these situations?
    Otherwise I don’t get what is this fuss all about…

    • Expat Eye says:

      To me, smiling and saying ‘hello’ is normal in every situation! And if you’re with someone, they should be introduced – it’s a little odd to just leave someone standing off to the side while you have a conversation in front of them – AWKWARD 😉

      • RuncZ says:

        Oh, I mostly agree with these two points. I was thinking more about general rules of engagement – friendly, official, men, women and so on. I can’t imagine them being much different.

        I have noticed that a lot of people smile when meeting someone they know. I do that too and I have even consciously tried not to smile, but I can’t do it – it’s like a reflex. So I guess it’s not latvian specific and depends on a person.

        Introductions, however, with some accidentally met friend are not mandatory in my opinion. But if the conversation goes beyond simple “Hi” leaving you out of it is rude (like in this case). Of course, including you without introduction is tricky, but that’s another story.

      • Expat Eye says:

        If someone’s just walking past and says ‘hi’, then sure, no introductions are necessary! If a conversation starts though, it’s only polite to introduce the other person. I’d like to see you trying not to smile and failing 😉

      • RuncZ says:

        Well, Riga is not that big so it’s quite likely I’ll meet you at some point. Then you’ll see how it looks 😀

      • Expat Eye says:

        Ha ha! I’ll do my best not to smile either – it’s bloody difficult though! 😉

      • Liga says:

        I agree! It is a very stupid situation to be in, and well, by sounding a bit arrogant, I think those are manners perfected depending on how much of the world people have seen in combination of understanding it. And yes, the gay thing, it is not easy to be so afraid to look gay all the time… I would say the same knowing and understanding of the world applies also here. Thanks for your blog. It is “spot-on”!

      • Expat Eye says:

        Thank you Liga! Glad you like it! 🙂 Yes, I think the more people travel and experience, the more open (and open-minded) they become!

  27. Ahhhh, too many rules! I’d end up doing exactly what you did too!

  28. JMC says:

    Ahahahahahahahah You are so funny my dear 😀 and so realist about the country’s customs and in a more funny way I would say that you could make more short the ”meet” custom’s, with whatever they say or do to each other when they meet ……………. but if you could read their minds they will certainly say to each other, in thoughts : hi , you re still alive ;D with a big Texas rictus on their face 😀
    As for you who are present on the side during their meeting, not worth playing the invisible man or woman, because you are SIMPLY INVISIBLE 😀 ahahahhahahaha
    But one thing is clear dear Linda, your blog should be posted in full at the arrival gate of the Riga’s airport and especially in huge manner in the year 2014 ;D to remind to tourists that they must not forget that Latvia has the crown title of European Capital of Culture …………
    I guess tourists won’t be disappointed …………….. 😀

  29. TRex says:

    I just assume that I’m mere seconds away from causing offense ragardless of any greeting faux pas. Makes life much simpler. You know what foreigners are like. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink. 😉

    • Expat Eye says:

      Oh, that’s a good approach! At least that way, you’re never surprised when you cause offence, rather pleasantly surprised (once in a blue moon) when you don’t 😉

  30. freebutfun says:

    Funny thing though, I lived for a few years in an other part of Finland, dated a guy from that part too and the same thing: we walk together he meets his childhood friends, they chat but I’m not introduced! I can tell you there were a few “talks”. And then once we met an old friend of mine, also from the region, i of course introduced them, and… nothing. They both look at something interesting not there, don’t say a thing and don’t even shake a hand. I still don’t get it, and it’s the same country. But I’m pretty sure your kisses would be welcome by all the boys here 😉

  31. Wow!!That’s pretty in depth, you wouldn’t want to get it wrong… But what happens when a woman meets another woman??

  32. Richard says:

    You are so getting me ready for when I arrive over there. This part is going to be tough because here in the Southern USA we are naturally touchy feely and it’s seldom we meet someone who isn’t a “friend”. At least now I’ll know not to feel slighted when my friend and I run into someone she knows and I get left standing there like a log. After following you blogs maybe the culture shock won’t be so bad.

  33. I only times that I don’t make an introduction while out with family and/or friends are when I really didn’t want to run into that person in the first place. Other than this, to me (here in the the good ol’ U. S. of A), it just seems rude NOT to make the introduction. And with so many rules, it’s a wonder that there is any procreation going on there!

    • Expat Eye says:

      Ha ha, maybe if he doesn’t crush her palm, he’s onto a winner 😉 It’s rude to me too but just not really done here! It makes me feel uncomfortable either way – whether I’m not introduced or the other person isn’t. I never really know where to look!

    • Wow, I typed that really fast. It SHOULD read “The only times…”

  34. A kingdom for a handshake! The incessant kissing in Spain is seriously getting on my nerves. Especially when you’re expected to kiss total strangers. At least people smile and say hello, I guess…

  35. Excellent information to have if one is visiting friends in Latvia. What is the thinking behind not introducing people? Perhaps they have forgotten the name?

    • Expat Eye says:

      Ha ha! Maybe! I asked a friend and she said there is no reason really – just maybe they think you’re not interested? But anyone who knows me knows that I’m interested in EVERYTHING! 😉

    • Piektdienis says:

      I am Latvian myself and in general, if it is only a few lines you are going to speak to your acquaintance: like, “how are you/what you doing nowadays/ah ok, thx bye”, it feels sort of OK.

      If the conversation is longer I introduce my companion always, and am pissed off if I am not introduced myself in opposite situations.

  36. Aggie says:

    That`s what I hate myself in some people in Latvia… And in Ireland as well… If after few words I am not introduced I walk sideways and start to play with phone 😀 Understood… not my business 😀

    • Expat Eye says:

      Does it happen in Ireland?? I find it really strange! I’ve met students out with their husbands/wives and we chat and they just stand there, not saying anything 😉 I’m sort of giving the ‘student-wife’ eye but they never take the hint! If I’m with someone and I introduce them, then they will but never first… 🙂

  37. Jack says:

    This one should be a mandatory part of the tourist maps.

    And what is it with this handshake? In a country which is so germ-phobia (is that a word?) And they do this handshaking constantly.

    In my current profession dealing with food it is actually quite troublesome. Everytime I have to go through a long wash and sterilisation process in order not to accidentially spread unwanted bacteria in the food. Think about if your food provider is doing this as well everytime… If not, think where that hand was before the ritual shake…

    I’ll say – the Scandinavia way works better for me. Keep an arms length distance.

  38. C’mon! Where do you find this amount of log-men? There are much more friendly Latvians there. Word! 😀

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