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We can all agree on one thing: In business, greeting and goodbye are important. They establish the tone of the conversation and set you up for the next time you meet.

We can also agree that these days, it's a bit harder to gauge the appropriate etiquette. Watch any episode of Shark Tank, for instance, and the business deal always seems to result in a hug. And with the holidays in sight (read: more opportunities to meet and mingle at office parties, after-work cocktails, and networking events), you might also feel more comfortable going for the hug—or even the side kiss. But plenty of people also find hugs invasive and violating their personal space. What's a savvy young professional to do?

Using a cross-cultural data set of 1,368 individuals across five countries, University of Oxford researchers conducted a study showing where people feel comfortable being touched based on their relationship and familiarity with the other person.

The study's results indicate that when it comes to interacting with strangers and acquaintances, men feel more comfortable being touched. In general, women don’t feel comfortable being touched by strangers and acquaintances—not too surprising. So what does this study mean when choosing your greetings and goodbyes for individuals you know in a business or professional setting?

The Handshake

According to the study, both men and women feel almost equally uncomfortable being touched anywhere by a stranger, except for the hands. When meeting someone for the first time, always opt for a handshake.

When greeting acquaintances—whether if you’ve met them a few times or run into them regularly—stick with a handshake as well. While we're more familiar with an acquaintance than a stranger, the study still indicates that acquaintances only feel comfortable being touched on the hands, and only slightly less uncomfortable being touched somewhere else on the arm.

The Hug

The study indicates that women feel discomfort to the point of feeling inappropriate when it comes to hugging strangers, acquaintances, male cousins and uncles. Interestingly, however, the study shows that a woman would feel more comfortable hugging a male friend than she would a male family member (unless it's her father). Men, on the other hand, feel equally comfortable with a hug or a touch somewhere else on the arm from strangers, acquaintances, and close relations. To avoid any issues, keep hugs to immediate family members, close friends, or your partner. 

The Side Kiss

Some European cultures have one standard greeting that both genders use (the Spanish kiss on each cheek, for example). Greetings would be much simpler if this was the case in America. Instead, the University of Oxford's research shows that women feel uncomfortable with a side kiss unless it is their partner or mother.

The study includes cultures known for being more physically expressive, like Italy and France. Yet it reported that, "cultural influences were minor." And, "unexpectedly," the Telegraph reports, "Italians were less comfortable with being touched than Russians, while overall Finns were the most comfortable." The lesson here is don't make assumptions, and adapt to the dominant culture you're in.

At the end of the day, greetings are an acquired skill, not an art. A good rule of thumb when it comes to gray areas is to let others initiate the interaction. Be aware of your personal physical boundaries and mimic what your coworker or boss does. That is, if you’re comfortable with it, too!

Photo Credit: Flickr