The Social Kiss


Fridays were always educational film afternoons in the classrooms of my youth. You know the films, dear readers: black and white and veiled in Cold War propaganda, by the time we viewed them in the early 1970s they were already horribly dated. The Simpsons make a good job of parodying the experience which makes me think (and shudder, in equal measure) that they still might be in use in my American homeland.

Regardless, it is one such viewing experience that leads me to the topic of this blog. The film must have been focussed on the varying customs and practices around the world and how they differ from our own. Perhaps the intention was to highlight the oddity of such alien customs. Certainly, the reality was that the classroom of 8 year olds (myself included) would cry out in derision when something strange came on the screen, something as outlandish as “Look- they eat mayonnaise on their French Fries-Ewwwww!”

But the film was building to something even more sinister in the final scene. I clearly remember the gravel-shaken voice-over explaining that we were in fact watching a scene from Soviet Russia. Many of the details still register in my mind: two men were pushing a wooden boat down the banks of the River Volga. The disembodied voice, no doubt puffing on a Lucky Strike growled at us to watch as the two men said goodbye to each other. Without warning, without an adult advisory, without a letter home to our parents: the two Russian men kissed each other on the cheek.

Cue the eruption of an 8 year old “Ewwwwwwwwwwww” that was felt on the Richter Scale. It was a legendary “Ewwwwwwww.” Some say they felt it as far away as Canada.

I remember feeling stunned. I didn’t know what stunned meant but I can recognise the feeling now, 40+ years later. I recall the realisation that my mouth was open in disbelief: I had never seen two men kiss before.

The gravel-voice re-emerged from overtop the projector’s flickering rhythm, “…and the man is just going on a short trip down the river.”

 

 

Four old friends walked passed me in succession last week. All four stopped to greet me: three with a single kiss on the cheek whilst the other walked past with a hello. There was nothing awkward or embarrassing about the encounter- we all knew the social boundaries we had set- the unwritten rule for our greetings.

Unwritten Rules for Greeting Acquaintances

  1. Some people kiss on one cheek
  2. Some people kiss on both cheeks
  3. Some will kiss only at Christmas and birthdays
  4. Some don’t kiss at all
  5. Some kiss and hug
  6. Some just hug

Quite a ways this side of the River Volga, I have been discussing social kissing with my…uh…social circle for the past few weeks.  I have been polling friends and family about this issue over the past week or so. People tend to stick to one their one default setting when greeting acquaintances. These defaults tend to be rooted in what we experienced as children in our own families.

My family were not kissers. Or huggers. I can’t remember being forced to kiss a relative and not even someone as familiar as my father or my sisters. In fact I remember kissing the cold forehead of my sister at her funeral ten years ago and thinking it was not just the last, but one of the first three times I had made such a gesture in my entire life.

However, our default greeting can be hijacked. This can happen when we enter into an exchange with another person who has their own default setting on greetings. Therefore if a kisser greets a non-kisser- which one wins out? Does the need for manifested intimacy automatically over-ride the need for comfortable distance?

One friend commented that she finds such situations embarrassing. I take that to mean that she is scanning the greeter carefully, trying to pick up on body language that will indicate if this particular greeting is a kiss or not. I imagine this causes not ends of banged heads, aborted kisses that end up awkward bounces.

I do not have such stress in my life. This is because I have my own default setting and I stick to it. I am probably more physical, more tactical, dare I say more oral than most. This is  despite not because of my up-bringing.

I tend to kiss/hug all my family close, extended members when I see them. This includes my brother in laws etc. It is a manly hug and a kiss on the cheek. All very Sopranos. In fact Mr Pineapple, who abhors kissing by the way, blames the great Mafia tv series on the fact that men tend to hug more when they meet these days.

My sister-in-law is the exception. She does not like to be kissed (at least by me) and rarely is the gesture exchanged. In fact, I can recall two times in the 20+ years I have known her when she has offered a kiss towards me: once on my wedding day and another when I was in the hospital and she was departing at the end of visiting hours. I don’t feel any less close to her than the rest of the extended family- it is just her default setting.

I tend to kiss people who visit my house but will not necessarily repeat the gesture on the street. Being in my house suggests intimacy. It is as much a welcoming gesture as anything.

My own observation is that most of our close friends are not kissers. Those that are tend to be single cheek-pressers: in other words they press against my face and make a smacking or muwahh sound. All these non-kissers may elect to kiss at significant points in time like Christmas or birthdays but it is the exception rather than the rule.

Alternatively, friends who are from The Continent or beyond tend to kiss on both cheeks. I make the assumption that someone who is not British will want to greet me with a kiss on both cheeks. That way there is no awkwardness; just a natural flow and kisses are dispersed on either side of the face.

It doesn’t stop there. What could be worse, dear readers, than the man who when shaking hands elects to go for the 1970s “Right On” grasp of interlocking thumbs? Only two people still use it- my uncle and Mr Pineapple’s aging builder. And Mr Pineapple confesses to liking it. Well liking it more than all that man-hugging he blames on the Sopranos.

And so this excursion into amateur psychology arrives nowhere. Certainly there must be a hypothesis to be made in regards to the matter at hand; there are two types of people those that kiss/don’t kiss and those who let the other person decide for them. But the act is symptomatic, I reckon; a reflection of our confidence and assertiveness.

In my mind’s eye it is Friday afternoon educational film time. Tony Soprano and Paulie Walnuts are pushing a wooden boat down the litter-strewn bank to the Hackensack River. I think there may be a body in a carpet wrapped with chains lying in the bottom. The two paisans stop and embrace. They pound each other’s back to show respect but not the slightest hint of tenderness in the gesture. Tony kisses Paulie as the boat is pushed off from shore.

And somewhere a Russian school child is cringing and going “ewwwwwwwwwww, you call that a kiss?”

Keep the Faith,

The Head

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