Belfast Telegraph

Why modern minefield of social kissing leaves some people with their hearts in their mouths

By Mary Kenny

Margaret Atwood, the writer and feminist, said recently - when commenting on the rise of the #MeToo movement - that, "what we need is a new book of Mr Manners".

The trouble, she said, was that people didn't know how to behave any more, or what the rules were. When she was growing up in Canada in the 1950s, there was a 'Mr Manners' protocol whereby social rules were imparted.

Actually, it was a 'Miss Manners' - the famed American etiquette queen Emily Post - who set out the guidelines. For example, a man should always be introduced to a woman, not the other way around, because it is a lady's prerogative to refuse the introduction (a sort of drawing-room version of consent). A man should always show "deference and respect" to "the fairer sex", and a gentleman should never be found sitting down if a lady was still standing.

There was a lot more of this stuff, which was subsequently rejected as pompous and patronising.

On sexual manners, Atwood said many of the changes went back to the contraceptive pill. Before the pill, sexual restraints were imposed by the fear of out-of-wedlock pregnancy. After the pill, it was just a matter of choice. But then again, that's exactly what has led to Harvey Weinstein and Me Too. If there are no rules, why not try it on?

Maybe the Me Too movement is the new 'Miss Manners', but the uncertainty about how to behave extends to wider areas of social interaction. There used to be instructions on how to compose a letter. If it was a formal 'Dear Sir or Madam', the letter should end 'yours faithfully. If it was a 'Dear Mr or Mrs', it should end 'yours sincerely'. To family and friends, you could end with 'love'.

Emails have changed all this. It is not unusual now to receive an email from someone you have never met which ends with the kiss sign. I sometimes do it myself, mostly to friends and family, but occasionally, as a kind of general cordial gesture.

But I have heard people say - young people, too, who are not apt to be formal - that they dislike it in a business communication. The kiss sign should be earned, not appended from some unknown official in the contracts department.

The social kiss itself is a minefield. A British diplomat, Andy Scott, became so confused by the protocols of kisses and greetings that he felt compelled to write a book about the dilemma, aptly named One Kiss or Two?

It can be an agonising decision as to when and how to exchange kisses in a social setting. The protocols of what's called 'la bise', in France are bewildering. It's a standard two in Paris (right cheek first), three or four in Provence, four in the Loire valley and five in Corsica.

Predictably, there's a north-south divide in Europe on kissing: the more southern, in general, the more pogs. But globalisation has had an impact on the kissing game, and younger people everywhere exchange kisses more as social greetings. Yet it's a fine judgement as to whether it's one or two.

I've been told by an etiquette arbiter that the rule is 'two in town, one in the country', but it still seems hit and miss, and there's an embarrassing moment when you're not sure whether you're expected to go for the other cheek.

Kissing isn't just about affection. When Leo Varadkar meets Theresa May, they exchange kisses, not because they're mad about one another (they're not), but because it is a sign of parity between leaders.

World leaders often publicly exchange kisses and hugs, but when President George W Bush tried to give Angela Merkel a back massage at the same time, he got a glacial response.

Central Europe once practised the hand-kiss from men to (married) women, as a sign of chivalry. Prince Charles still does this with continental royalty. Margaret Thatcher, who adored gallantry in men, was profusely hand-kissed when visiting Poland.

Hand-kissing denotes a society based on deference, not equality. Poles went on performing the hand-kiss elaborately all through the Communist years, just to spite Marxist proletarianism.

Andy Scott says that migration, like globalisation, has also had an impact on kissing. TV surely has had an influence as well. Watch any episode of The Late Late Show (or The Graham Norton Show) and it's often kisses all round. But this is showbiz: folk always kiss and hug.

What do you do if someone kisses you who you do not like? If it's just social kissing, I'd say put up with it. It's hardly a consent issue. A kiss increases the kisser's oxytocin, so be kind.

But because kissing can have a sexual dimension, there are ambiguities. It's pretty sad to read a British report on fostering, from Sir Martin Narey, formerly of Barnardo's, which notes that social workers have urged foster parents not to kiss and cuddle their foster children, as it could lead to sexual abuse. Though these kids often desperately needed kisses and cuddles.

It's left up to the individual today to judge what is appropriate or embarrassing. Around Christmas time, a priest at our local church told the congregation: "Now I want you all to behave like Italians today. Turn to your neighbour in the pew and kiss them or give them a hug."

Then the flu epidemic came along and put a stop to such embracing - and even handshakes. Some breathed a sigh of relief.

Belfast Telegraph

Daily News Headlines Newsletter

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox.


From Belfast Telegraph