22 Feb 2023

To kiss or not to kiss?

For many generations of Britons, the handshake was a default greeting. It was egalitarian, could be used by both sexes, and was seen as straightforward and uncontroversial. It was recognised throughout the world and was a safe option in most foreign countries. But in the last two or three decades the greeting situation has become much less clear-cut. Kissing began to take over from handshaking, much as the handshake took over from the bow and curtsy. This may well have occurred under the influence of our more demonstrative European neighbours – the French, for example, are inveterate kissers – and it may well have been the choice of younger people, who chose to discard the comparative formality of handshakes in favour of a warmer gesture.

The rapid ascent in popularity of the kiss was dealt something of a body blow by the Covid pandemic. British people, who had been becoming more relaxed and tactile, suddenly found themselves in a situation where any physical greetings, especially handshakes and kisses, were off the menu. We all had recourse to awkward bows, namaste gestures, elbow bumps or apologetic waves. This peculiar panoply of greetings inevitably persisted for some time after most social interactions had ostensibly returned to normal.

The ‘normal’ situation that was devastated by the pandemic was, however, already a cause of confusion, and navigating the ins and outs of British greetings still requires a large dose of tact and social awareness.

When should you choose the social kiss? This is usually dependent on situation, age, background, profession and your relationship. The double kiss is the norm among younger people, and it is not unusual for younger people to greet complete strangers with a double kiss, whereas middle-aged people are more liable to reserve kisses for friends. Don’t kiss colleagues, unless your workplace is very informal and friendly. Do greet close friends and dates with a kiss.

While young men are enthusiastic huggers, and a manly hug, often accompanied by affectionate back-patting, is becoming more popular amongst middle aged men, it is still more unusual for men to kiss one another in greeting than women, and kissing is still rare within more traditional professions, amongst older men or in very rural areas.

Many children hate being kissed by adults they hardly know. By the same token it is inadvisable for parents to force their children to kiss people. Instead, they should encourage small children to learn to shake hands, which is seen as charming and a sign that they are well brought-up.

The key is to make your actions clear to avoid embarrassing confusion. Usually, it’s right cheek first but prepare to change direction at the last minute. Pull back decisively (but don’t be too abrupt) if you are just giving one kiss. Be cautious with those you are less familiar with – two kisses might seem over the top. If confusion occurs over one-kiss-or-two, take charge and go in for a second. Humour is useful in deflecting embarrassment over the meet-in-the-middle mix-up. Three kisses is definitely too many.

An air kiss, with no contact at all, may seem rude or impersonal, but at least it is not intrusive – it is simply a social kiss, not a sign of affection to a loved one. A very slight cheek contact is best, and no ‘mwah mwah’ sound effects are needed.

Hand-kissing, or rather a man bowing over the hand of a married woman, never a young girl, and not quite touching it with his lips, is an elegant gesture which has an old-fashioned air of Mitteleuropa. It has never really caught on in Britain and tends to look affected unless you come from a culture where men are brought up to perform this courtly gesture.

Despite the increasing popularity of more tactile greetings there are undoubtedly many people who recoil from physical contact with someone they hardly know or are simply reticent about their physical boundaries and feel that kissing is intrusive. Additionally, some people are still cautious around close physical contact in the wake of Covid and prefer to keep their distance.

If you really object to being kissed by people you hardly know then you may extend a straight arm and offer to shake hands, which should give a clear message. This pre-emptive gesture is designed to nip any kissing in the bud, so if you are a social kisser, do not force kisses on people who are extending a hand.

If, like many people, you are confused by the whole contemporary greetings culture, you will probably find that the best attitude is somewhat improvisational and ad hoc. If you find yourself amongst a group of people where kissing prevails, then – unless you have any violent objection – it is probably best to go with flow. Simply hang back, take your lead from other people, and never visibly baulk at an unexpected kiss.

If you find yourself in a situation where you are clearly expected to be the initiator of the greeting, you can always default to a handshake; it is a more formal gesture, but at least it doesn’t intrusively presume on an intimacy that does not exist. Quite frequently it is deployed as an icebreaker on initially meeting someone, only to be supplanted by a more friendly kiss on saying goodbye.


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