A kiss is just a kiss… unless it involves me. With apologies to Sam, let me explain.
The cheek kiss greeting is a cultural custom that continues to confound me. Despite my best attempts to overcome it, I am afflicted with a bad case of social awkwardness. I’ve tried to cultivate the confident movements of grace and refinement, but on the elegance continuum, I’m more Eliza Doolittle than Audrey Hepburn.
Now, in America, greetings are pretty straightforward. Hugs = personal. Handshakes = professional. Ok, some families are kiss people, but hugging is far more widespread. I guess a bro-hug is a hug-handshake hybrid, but since I am a woman, I never had to consider this variable.
And sure, I’ve seen movies with air kisses on display. I honestly thought that it was a French thing and since I wasn’t living in France, it didn’t enter my sphere of consciousness. I assumed greetings in the UK involved handshakes or maybe a curtsy if the Queen was involved.
During my first business trip to the UK, there were initial introductions. I approached these with my hand out for a firm and confident handshake. First impressions, blahblahblah. Those handshakes went off flawlessly and there was no hint of social awkwardness.
As I walked into the offices on my second trip, it had been several weeks since my last visit. I made eye contact with someone I felt I had made a good connection last time, so I crossed the room to greet him. My hand was already out in front of me, but instead of shaking it, he pulled it in and leaned toward me. In a slow motion scene straight out of the movies, I realized he was coming in for a cheek kiss.
I had a panic stricken internal conversation over the 3 seconds it took for this entire incident to happen.
Hey! It’s Mr. X!
I should walk over there and say hello.
(Walking) I need to ask him about this new project.
(Hand out for the shake) Crap, what’s his wife’s name again?
(Feeling a pull on my hand) Wait, what the?
What is he doing?
Oh, god, is he trying to do a kiss thingy?!?
Ah, ok, how does this go?
Do you actually touch your lips to the cheek?
Or, just touch cheeks?
Or, do you stop short of the cheek, like an air kiss?
Ok, just be cool.
He’s leaning in. Ok, lean in. Remember not to swear.
Ok. Steady. Almost there, almost there…
I closed my eyes and smashed my cheekbone into his. We both stepped back holding our hands to our faces.
Definitely more Eliza than Audrey.
Going in too hard wasn’t my only cheek kiss failure. I never got the number of kisses right, either. Later that same trip, I came across another colleague who took my outstretched hand and pulled me in. Having just experienced this, I thought I was properly conditioned and carefully leaned in as to not blow out his cheek.
But he didn’t just administer one cheek kiss, he wanted TWO.
Naturally, I wasn’t ready for two, so I pulled back after an air kiss near the right cheek. This was no vapid, ladies-that-lunch air kiss, because I was so close, I could practically feel stubble. If I went before the air kiss judges, this was a perfect 10.
As he pulled me forward, it resulted in a herky-jerky motion, which caused me to stumble. I stepped on his toe and ended up kissing his ear. Game ending buzzer. Score: 0.
For the entirety of my time living in the UK, I tried to crack the code on one-versus-two kisses. Sure, after meeting someone, I knew if they were a one-or-two sorta person. But for a first time greeting, I tried to develop a non-verbal prediction system. If they appeared stiff and formal, I would assign them one kiss. Affable and smiling meant two kisses were on the agenda.
I’m pretty sure I never got this right. My UK kiss greetings generally have one of two outcomes.
1) I Expect One: They pull me in for kiss number two and I awkwardly kiss outside the cheek area or smash their face.
2) They Expect One: I pull them in for kiss number two and they give me a look of polite fear and an uncomfortable laugh.
Either way, I engage my poor British victims in a regrettable ‘kiss-greeting mambo.’
Just when I thought I was getting the hang of it, a new variable emerged: three and four kiss greetings.
There are several countries that aren’t satisfied with a quick peck or even one kiss for each cheek. It’s as though they decided this was a competition that needed to be won.
The Netherlands is a three-kiss country. Incredibly, it doesn’t seem possible. The Dutch are known for their reserve. Sure, they are friendly, but definitely not effusive. I get why Italians ‘three kiss’- they are demonstrative people! Then, there are the elusive French, they kiss two or four times, which I believe is related to the degree of affection you have for that person. I have never received a definitive answer on it.
As awkward as the one or two kiss greeting is for me, three or four are simply painful due to the amount of time you spend in the personal space of the greeter. For one or two kisses, I am too busy ‘setting’ myself to think much about it. But by the time you reach the third or fourth kiss, you are acutely aware of your discomfort. Time seems interminable.
What makes the whole thing so difficult is that such customs are governed by nuance. There’s nothing in the guidebooks and no hard and fast rules. Even in supposed ‘kiss greeting’ countries, there were enough people who shook my hand that I could never approach greetings with complete confidence.
Just when you think I’ve plumbed the depths of this important issue, wait, there’s more.
It’s not just a question of ‘Should I shake or kiss?’ or even ‘How many kisses?’ There is also the matter of timing and location. For example, how much time must pass before your next kiss greeting? Two days? Two weeks? Two months?
I had a colleague (a two-kiss greeter) who wasn’t in the office as frequently as I was, and found that we were having a kiss greeting way too often. I liked this person, but the fortnightly* double kiss was getting a bit on the uncomfortable side. I mentally made the decision that one month was the minimum absence for me to engage in a kiss greeting. Which resulted in a different kind of awkwardness. As this poor fellow entered the room, I had gone from friendly greeting to a brief glance up from computer to wave hello, then return my gaze to the computer while feverishly typing away to feign the appearance of busy-ness.
Now, there is a loophole in my one-month rule- if it involves train or air travel.
Interestingly, when I travel with someone, a kiss farewell makes perfect sense no matter how long it's been since the last one. Come to think about it, kissing goodbye is much less awkward than kissing hello. Ostensibly, you have engaged in some conversation or activity that would generate enough good feelings towards the other person that some sort of embrace is warranted.
Sadly, by the time I warmed to the whole kiss thing, I was preparing to return to the US. Near the end, my goodbyes were a kiss fest of epic proportions. By this time, I almost felt European. I was still awkward, but at least my cheekbones were safe from disaster.
During one such occasion, I turned to face Mr. X. I leaned in with my eyes open this time.
He stuck out his hand to shake.
*Every two weeks for my American friends!