Greetings are a barometer, a gauge of how much love is in the proverbial room. Indeed, for many people, social kissing is among the more mysterious forms of human interaction.
“Recently my husband and I invited a professor of ours, from a programme for seniors, to dinner,” says Charlotte Prozan, a psychotherapist in San Francisco, US. “When he and his wife arrived, he leaned over to kiss what I thought was my cheek, but his lips made their way to my lips and we got caught somewhere in the zone between cheek and lips.”
Social kisses that are cross-cultural can be even more complicated. The tension can be particularly potent with colleagues. The beginnings and endings of meetings with clients are sometimes excruciating as we wait for someone to set the terms of salutations between individuals who are eager to display their camaraderie but who probably don’t know one another terribly well. To run into someone from work at a party or restaurant is to be suddenly forced to assign status to someone who may exist in your mind only as Guy Who Knows How to Replace the Xerox Machine’s Toner. Head nod? Cheek kiss? Vigorous pelvic wallop?
“Social kissing might have evolved as a way for people to inoculate themselves against passion, as well as to demonstrate their ability to rein in or even transcend desire,” says Daniel Akst, author of We Have Met the Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess. Akst views social kissing as a form of “regulated infidelity” meant to stymie courtship.
“Everyone’s become so used to celebrity culture, with all its false intimacy and mwah-mwah, that we’ve become confused,” says British etiquette consultant William Hanson. “If you kiss me on the first outing, where will we go from there?”
Hanson describes the proper procedure: “If it’s a man and a woman who are greeting each other, the lady proffers her cheek or cheeks. If she doesn’t want to kiss, she extends her hand. If it’s two women, it’s the senior one who sets the terms.”
Sometimes the indications are murky—sometimes we have the sense that sociopathic Tom is secretly longing for a cheek kiss; sometimes we think that a nice lip smack from Desiderio might be exactly the thwack of excitement that would put this torpid Tuesday afternoon up on its feet.
So, we heighten. We give expression to burgeoning sentiment. In which case, we should be prepared to deflate or sidestep any awkwardness that ensues when our ministrations are deemed overeager. “Just laugh it off,” Hanson says.
Those who find themselves in the opposite boat—those who find others’ lips to be eely—should try to keep wincing to a minimum.
©2012/The New York Times
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