Hugging and Kissing Serbian Way: Why Serbs Kiss Three Times
A common gesture symbolizing the Serbian nation are three fingers pointed up towards the sky. A national greeting etiquette are three kisses on the cheek. But why Serbs kiss three times and why do we show three fingers as a symbol of our nationality?
The three fingers symbolize the Holy Trinity (the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit). These are the same fingers Serbs use to make cross in the religious gesture. Following the Byzantine tradition, all Orthodox Christians make the sign of the cross with their thumb, index and middle finger touching, like the little girl in this picture:
The three fingers salute as a national greeting is first documented in the First and the Second Serbian Uprising, at the beginning of the 19th century. It was the rebellion of the Serbs against the Ottoman rule. At the time, it symbolized the battle of the Christians against the Ottoman Muslims.
The salute was forgotten only to revive in another fight in the 1990’s. The strongest opposition leader, who fought against Slobodan Milošević, was Vuk Drašković. He was the first to use the three fingers again, allegedly imitating what he saw in the paintings of the two Uprisings. The followers of his party SPO (Srpski pokret obnove – Serbian Renewal Movement) raised their three fingers in the rallies against Milošević.
From that time, the three fingers were shown whenever someone wanted to point out their Serbian nationality. And you must be warned here not to show the sign in Croatia or Bosnia. Because of the nationalistic connotation, you might get in trouble.
Why Serbs Kiss Three Times on the Cheek
Why we started kissing each other on the cheek three times and when it started, it is not known.
One speculation is that it’s connected with the Orthodox religion and the Holy Trinity. The same custom is maintained in Montenegro, Northern Macedonia and Russia. But then, why we share the number of kisses with the Dutch, the Swiss, the Belgians and Egyptians? I guess we’ll never know.
Another speculation says that the three kisses celebrate 1) life, 2) death and 3) honor, in that order. But I found no evidence for such a claim.
It is considered to be an old Serbian tradition, but ethnologists say it only started by the end of the last century. The truth is, I remember my grandma asking for the other cheek for a second kiss with these words: “And the other one, so it doesn’t cry” (“I drugi, da ne plače”).
Today, Serbs do not always kiss three times. Only on special occasions. Other times, we just hug and kiss once, or shake hands. But adults will never kiss twice.
Hugging and Kissing in Serbia Today
Should you hug and kiss or only shake hands in Serbia? Do Serbs really kiss three times on the cheek? When is it that they do it, and when they don’t?
I will tell you what to do when meeting people in Serbia: when to kiss them, how many times and how. You will learn to hug and kiss like a Serb!
ATTENTION: This is a slow Serbian video! It means that I speak in slow Serbian, just like I talk to my A1-A2 students.
If you’re learning the language, it will be an excellent listening exercise. Otherwise, just appreciate the sound of the Serbian language and focus on reading the English translation bellow the video.
(Scroll down to read the English translation.)
We will start from the most distant greeting and go all the way to the most intimate greeting.
The most distant greeting is a nod (I’m nodding my head now), then there’s a smile (I’m smiling now), then waving (I’m waving my hand now), then a handshake (we’re shaking hands), then we pat on the back, a hug (we’re hugging), then a kiss, then three kisses, then we have a smack (a friendly kiss, pusa or kiss), and finally the French kiss, the most intimate kiss.
Nodding – klimanje glavom
When we’re nodding, that’s the most distant greeting. Instead of saying “good afternoon” or “good morning”,
when all we want is to mumble “dobro jutro”, “bro jutro”, then we just nod and that’s it.
We’re keeping our distance.
A nod with a smile – klimanje glavom i osmeh
With a smile, that means that we’re glad to see someone, we’re happy to see them, we’re happy and there’s a smile: “Good day!” “Hello!” “Hi!”
Waving – mahanje
Then, we can wave. Ok? When we wave, the person is usually far away. When they are on the other side of the street, then we wave: “Ćao!” “Zdravo!” That’s informal. Ok?
If we’re saying to someone “Good afternoon, sir”, then we won’t wave. Then we’ll nod.
Handshake – rukovanje
When we’re meeting someone, then we’ll shake hands, if it’s formal, ok? Formally, we shake hands: “Good after noon, how are you?”
And for farewell, we will also shake hands. When we’re leaving, we’re shaking hands. “Doviđenja, prijatno”, we shake hands and leave.
Pat on the back – tapšanje po leđima
When we’re meeting our friends, men usually pat on each other’s back. Tap-tap-tap, they pat on the back.
Or they just hit once on the back: “What’s up, brother?” “What’s up, friend?”
They just hit you on the back like this.
Hugging and kissing Serbian way
Female friends, as well as male friends, hug each other. In Serbia, men also hug sometimes.
If they are close friends, then they will hug. Girls as well, relatives as well. We hug a lot in Serbia.
With a hug, when hugging, we usually also kiss. How and how many times?
Young people normally kiss only once.
That’s modern Serbian urban culture. Modern Serbian urban culture is that the young kiss only once.
The girls often kiss the air beside a cheek, the air beside a cheek, because they often have lipstick on and they do not want to leave trace. That’s why they kiss the air.
When the Serbs kiss three times
(To kiss) three times, it’s an old Serbian custom to kiss three times. That’s a little bit formal.
If we’re meeting our friend’s parents, we will usually shake hands when introducing ourselves. I say “I’m Magdalena, nice to meet you” and we shake hands.
If you’re meeting your partner’s parents, they will probably want to kiss you three times. Not always, but that’s most often the case. Because you’re a part of the family. Ok?
Since you’re a part of the family, they will pull you closer to them and kiss you three times.
Friends, young people, kiss only once and that’s called “cmok”. “Cmok” is an onomatopoeia, that’s the sound, mwah, cmok. That’s why it’s called “cmok”.
Also, for that kind of a kiss we use the German word “pusa” or the English word “kiss”, ok?
And we have two verbs, we have the verb cmoknuti, mwah, and kisnuti, which also means mwah.
Come here, let me give you a kiss.
Dođi da te cmoknem, dođi da te kisnem, dođi da te poljubim.
French kiss – francuski poljubac
Finally, and maybe the most beautiful, the most intimate, there’s the French kiss.
Or, in slang we say “žvaka” (chewing gum). Ok?
“Žvaka” is also that, like a candy, Orbit, that we put in our mouth and chew and we can blow a baloon. That’s “žvaka” (chewing gum). The same word we use for the French kiss.
French kiss or “žvaka” means that two people kiss and use their tongues while doing that.
So, let’s answer the questions from the beginning.
When you’re meeting your friend’s parents for the first time, shake hands and introduce yourself, say sour name: “I’m Magdalena, nice to meet you”, ok?
The second question: when you’re meeting your partner’s friends, also shake hands and say your name: “I’m Magdalena, nice to meet you”.
Do not kiss them. That would be strange, because you don’t know each other yet.
The third question: when you’re meeting your partner’s parents, you start by shaking hands, and they will pull you, if they want, and kiss three times. All right?
Traditionally, the Serbs kiss three times.
If you have any other questions, if you have comments, about interesting situations that you had, write about it below the video.
Learning Serbian, but embarrassed to talk? That’s foreign language anxiety and it’s very common. Here are my best tips to overcome your fear of speaking Serbian.
You speak Serbian, your spouse another language. Among yourselves you often communicate in that other language, or in a third language. And what will your child learn?
When you start learning Serbian, eventually you’ll face a vocabulary vs grammar dilemma. There is so much to learn. What to invest your time in: words or rules?