Tuesday, 1 July 2008

K = Kissing

New Zealanders have always been reserved people – thanks to our predominantly Anglo-Saxon heritage. Though I sense too that our isolation and the hard life of early immigrants contributed to a culture that values stoicism and has a distaste for overt shows of emotion.

So the arrival of the social kiss on our shores has disturbed a lot of people. Those of us who like to think we are more cosmopolitan have embraced it, but we still don’t understand it. Unlike the European cultures that habitually use the social kiss, we have no rules to guide us.

The Maori community, with its close-knit society and customary hongi greeting (a touching of noses and “shared breath” ), is more comfortable with being physically close to others. Maori men and women frequently greet members of the opposite sex with a kiss on the cheek.

But the rest of us grapple with the issue of to kiss or not to kiss, especially in the business context, but also socially.

Last year I was on a long business trip with several other people. After two weeks, and a successful conclusion to a very stressful negotiation, H flew out. At the airport, where we had all gone to have a final debriefing and to farewell him, I shook his hand and congratulated him on a tough time and a good result. That evening, chatting over a drink, one of our team commented that she thought Hone would have kissed me farewell, and was surprised he didn’t. I on the other hand was not surprised. I explained that our relationship was a professional one, I was his boss essentially, and that – however friendly and at ease in each other’s company we might be (we had conducted an early morning meeting with me in a sarong in front of the mirror straightening my hair only a few days earlier) - ultimately we had to keep things on a business level. At the very least in front of his staff!

This though is representative of the confusion that surrounds the social kiss in New Zealand. I recounted the story that I had once travelled with another colleague in another company – we had drunk champagne cocktails together and snuggled down into our seats on the plane side by side. But it was not until I had left the company, and ran into him again, that he said to me “now you’re not a colleague I can give you a kiss!” And I reciprocated gladly.

I should add that the next day at the airport, when it was my turn to leave, D grabbed me and said “well I’m going to give you a kiss whether you like it or not!”

It’s a minefield, even socially. Many of my peer group now seem to kiss on meeting. There’s an awkward moment, that first kiss with male friends (or the husbands of friends) you’ve known for years.

Even when we’ve dealt with the issue of whether or not to kiss, and we lean in for a kiss, there are pitfalls.

Fortunately, most people automatically go to your right cheek first. So there are not too many broken noses as a result of poor directional judgments.

With Charles, we have had the occasional clash of eye-glasses. (There’s a lot to be said for contact lenses if you’re a nervous social kisser). Even if you navigate the inward movement successfully, there is always the danger of your glasses hooking his on the outward movement, or vice versa. We kiss each other awkwardly and carefully, breaking free with relief and getting on to more interesting things, like what wine we’re drinking and what gossip needs to be told.

There is of course the issue of “one cheek or two.” It can be terribly awkward - you start to pull away after the first manoeuvre just as the kisser aims at your other cheek, then you feel terribly gauche and go back to complete the kissing, just as they give up on you. Hopefully you can laugh about it, making it much more relaxed. Last week, as I said farewell to Joe who was going home to Canada, I kissed him on both cheeks. He was startled. “Oh! A double kiss!” he said, looking relieved that I wasn’t going in for a third!

Then there’s the confused “is this a kiss or a hug” gentle colliding of bodies, and finding you’re kissing the back of someone’s head as they grab you in a bear hug.

It's a pity blowing kisses wouldn't catch on. But it's not really acceptable to do that to a member of the opposite sex over the age of about 6.

There’s a lot to be said for the Germans, the handshaking champions of the world, keeping a seemly distance with everyone with a handshake. Simple and clear-cut. Confusion-free. Unfortunately, New Zealanders have a relatively informal culture, and so the formal, business handshake hasn’t really caught on in social situations.

The Thais have it right.

They wai, and bow the head. We could do that. We like our personal space.

Whilst I am all for a good hug with close friends and family, I shudder to think that we will ever adopt the custom of hugging complete strangers or professionals (eg dentists and doctors or interviewers) that we see on American TV shows. My US friends, please tell me you don’t hug your doctors in real life?

Of course, in written form, I’m very relaxed.

So hugs and kisses, handshakes and hongis to everyone!


  1. a smile, a slight raise of the eyebrow, a momentary wave of the hand and an 'alright?': that's the English way: handshaking is ok too, at a pinch.

  2. Well, I've certainly never hugged a doctor (except Dr. Will, but that's another story),but perhaps that's attributable to my Anglo-Saxon genes.

  3. Irish German here, in conflict all the time. I have never hugged or kissed a doctor or other such person. As a Catholic, at the sign of peace at mass, I still shake hands with my PARENTS. But the nun from San Antonio hugs me each time. Anyway, my very gay, very chic cousin in New York always kisses me hello and goodbye; so do my very rich very conservative aunt and uncle (but she's ALSO from San Antonio, so maybe that's part of it). I've become a good chameleon. Always one kiss, always right cheek, and only if the other person seems to be making the move in that direction.

  4. Oh, how beautifully written. I'm absolutely OK with the social kiss, but you have captured the awkwardness of everyone being on the same page [or likely not] so beautifully...one kiss or two? And two, I swear, there is often clashing. I think I must be one who doesn't go to the right first...

    I have never gotten involved with a late-night hospital soap, believe it or not, so I can only guess that this is what you are referring to.

  5. I am much relieved.
    IB, I am ashamed to admit that I am referring to the way everyone hugs Oprah and those awful reality show plastic surgeons. We don't have any late-night hospital soaps but I'm sure _ with my obvious high standards - I'd draw the line at them anyway!

  6. yes, many people here hug, but I can't stand it ... for one thing, the rules are ambiguous. I don't hug doctors and such, but clients often want to, and I usually let them guide itm but it doesn't mean I like being touched ...

    A lovely discussion.

  7. Ah, Oprah. I'm afraid I don't watch her either, but certainly have seen enough to realize what you are talking about!

    And I imagine some of the hospital shows are actually good...I just haven't let myself get sucked into those, given all my other addictions.

  8. I remember some years ago asking someone about the two-cheek kiss. Which cheek first, left or right? No definitive answer so of course I googled!

    It's mostly a European thing (something I already knew) and guess what: it depends on the country and sometimes the region of the same country! That's why I just stand still and wait for someone else to make a move. I've found that a sudden groping sometimes breaks the ice.


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