‘Double kisser beats the single kisser, who in turn trounces the handshake’

Jennifer O'Connell: We pretend we’re worldly Europeans, then someone goes for a cheek kiss and the pretence melts away

One kiss or two, or may be three. Photograph: iStock

One kiss or two, or may be three. Photograph: iStock

 

I’ve come to dread bumping into acquaintances unexpectedly, particularly if they’ve recently returned from holidays. You pretend to be delighted to see them; possibly, you are actually delighted to see them. But simultaneously, you’re squaring up to each other like two fighters in the ring, trying to anticipate the other’s next move. Will they go for one cheek? Or two? Or – oh, for the love of all that’s holy – they’re not going for three?

Social kissing is a gorgeous, civilised phenomenon, if you live in a country where children come out of the womb instinctively knowing how to use a fish knife. Ireland is not such a country.

Here, the closest thing we have to a traditional greeting is a firm nod from a distance of around five yards, fists jammed in pockets. Where other nationalities have a range of charming, lyrical phrases to draw on – enchanté , or piacere – we have only “Pint?”

Comfortingly for the aggressive secularists among us, we may have the church to blame for this

We pretend that we’re all worldly Europeans now, shopping for pecorino in Lidl and knowing the correct pronunciation of bruschetta. But then someone goes in for a cheek kiss, and the whole pretence melts in a puddle of anxious sweat. Cheek kissing turmoil reaches epidemic levels in summertime, when people return from the continent sporting a beachy tan and the kind of notions that can turn even a casual encounter into the social equivalent of Brexit.

The agony is particularly acute if you bump into a colleague out of context, and you suddenly have to recalibrate them from Tom-who-knows-how-to-fix-the-coffee-machine to someone with whom you may be about to engage in a social exchange of saliva. Which cheek will they go for first? Might they be diving in for a hug only? Are you looking at a one-armed air hug, or a whole upper body embrace? In kiss-only situations, what the hell are you supposed to do with your hands? If it’s a hug – and this may only be an issue for the ladies – where do you put your breasts?

Also – this is the bit I’ve never been able to figure out – who ultimately gets to decide? I suspect it’s a game of Top Trumps, where the double kisser beats the single kisser, and the single kisser trounces the handshaker. If no one takes the lead, the risk is that you’ll end up flapping your hands at each other like angry swans.

Aggressive secularists

Comfortingly for the aggressive secularists among us, we may have the church to blame for this. According to a book called One Kiss or Two: In Search of the Perfect Greeting, by Andy Scott, social kissing all started with St Paul. “In his Epistle to the Romans, St Paul instructed followers to “salute one another with a holy kiss”. Scott goes on to speculate that this may be why social kissing is so deeply embedded in the culture of Catholic countries. Speaking from the vantage point of a nation that still broadcasts the Angelus twice a day, and yet prefers to leave space for the Holy Ghost between us while saying hello, this theory needs some work.

An internet search reveals that it’s not only the Irish who are confused. In Poland, Slovenia, Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro, the Netherlands, Iran and Egypt, it is customary to kiss three times. In Russia, it’s three-plus-a-bear-hug. In Bosnia, Italy, Hungary and Romania, it’s twice; in Mexico and Belgium, once; in Oman, “it is not unusual for men to kiss one another on the nose after a handshake”, advises Wikipedia; in Afghanistan, greeting is a bacterial free-for-all involving up to eight kisses. In France, meanwhile, it’s either one, two, three or four kisses, depending where in France you are.

In most countries, you start with the right cheek first, except – of course there’s an exception – in Italy. When I was on holidays there last month, I’d find myself chanting silently “left left left” as I was introduced to someone new. I have trouble with left and right, especially when I’m under pressure. This is tricky behind the wheel, but it’s nothing to how traumatic it proves when you’re meeting an Italian for the first time.

Bumping noses

Invariably, at the last second, I’d bottle it, lunge for the right cheek, realise my mistake, and we’d be left bumping noses. Or mashing our mouths together. Even when I managed to navigate it with a degree of what I considered panache, I’d catch a fleeting expression of confusion or disdain that suggested strongly otherwise.

The obvious answer is to revive the handshake. But even handshaking is not as straightforward as it used to be, since a study revealed people sniff their hands 22 per cent of the time after shaking someone else’s. This practice is called chemosignalling – meaning, we use handshakes as a kind social assessment, making judgments about others based how they smell. In effect, we are like dogs sniffing one another’s bums.

Now, when I shake someone’s hand, I have to keep an eye afterwards to see if they’re metaphorically sniffing my bum. So if you bump into me, let’s forsake all of the above and stick to flailing like angry swans.

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