Thoughts on Social Embracement
You may be surprised at the dilemma in which I and, I suppose, other males find themselves from time to time. I refer in particular to the different cultural patterns that determine how many kisses a lady should be given on meeting and departure.
When I was a lad the only kissing that went on (to my knowledge) was from mothers on departure to school and from aunts at birthday parties and Christmas. Both were to be avoided to the maximum extent possible without giving offense too visibly. The chaste exchanges between my parents seemed symbolic rather than expressive of profound emotion. But things have changed.
Kissing, like handshaking, has become frequent, conventional and anticipated. The problem is: How many? I give my wife Annette a handsome single most mornings.
Again a quandary arises in circumstances when a lady extends her hand. Kiss it or shake it? A wrong choice can be socially irredeemable. Of course, moderation should be exercised always—multiple kissing extending from finger tip to elbow is ludicrous. Kissing the palm, sniffing or licking the fingers should also be avoided.
But go to a cocktail party and the ladies expect at least two. This can be hazardous to both kisser and kissee, particularly if one or both contenders wears hats, earrings, glasses, hearing aids, dentures, detachable hairpieces or other devices creating difficulty of access or productive of an embarrassing entanglement.
Judge my surprise, then, when on a European trip I found I was expected to provide no less than three kisses. The ladies continuously turned their heads from side to side and I was obliged to kiss each cheek as it flashed past. How this asymmetrical practice developed I am unaware.
The story goes that when Keats was drafting “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” he arranged to “shut her wild, wild eyes with kisses three.” It was pointed out that this created some technical difficulties since it required one and a half kisses on each eyelid. He therefore shut her eyes with kisses four, which neatly resolved the quandary. Obviously, he preferred symmetry to tradition.
Of course I learned years ago that social bussing, clipping or kissing (the words are synonymous) has nothing to do with the hearty lip-to-lip stuff in which the participants appear to chew upon each others’ lips and perform the elaborate lingual gymnastics that we have become accustomed to see in movies and on TV and which are supposed to denote heightening passion. No, in social kissing the two contestants place their cheeks in brief parallel alignment, and one or both generate soft sounds of suction by the sharp intake of breath. Does the tongue have a role in these circumstances? I think the response is an unequivocal negative unless the participants wish to convey to each other not only conventional friendliness but also an anticipatory sequel.
Cocktail parties can be hazardous to both kisser and kissee, particularly if one or both contenders wears hats, earrings,
glasses, hearing aids, dentures, detachable hairpieces or other devices creating difficulty of access or productive of
an embarrassing entanglement.
The exchanges between adults, children and babies pose an entirely different set of problems. Of a largely symbolic character, children will submit readily only if a reward is hinted at and babies only if fed, dry and asleep. I do not consider these as serious social difficulties. W.C. Fields, no doubt to his latter-day, gin-sodden condition, said that anyone who disliked dogs and children could not be wholly bad. I feel he must have had some unfortunate experiences with children, and I cannot believe that he would kiss his dog, even in an inebriated state.
One Alfred Wolfram extended social embracement to a bizarre extreme. In 1990 at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival he kissed 8,001 people in eight hours, representing an average of 16.67 persons per minute. Some years ago the Reader’s Digest published an article in which a kiss of average intensity was quantitated in terms of energy expenditure. It was stated that such a kiss consumed nine calories and that to lose one pound by this method would require 389 repetitions. Wolfram expended some 72,000 calories in the performance of his unusual feat with a calculated loss of 185 pounds. As a method of weight control it is not to be recommended.
Social kissing, the hazards of which I have mentioned, does have certain advantages over the counter-labial practice motivated by affection. In social kissing there is less likelihood of transmission of illness, including the common cold, gum disease and infective mononucleosis. Accidental biting of the tongue, lips or buccal mucosa cannot take place, and offense created by bad breath, unswallowed food or eructation is avoided entirely. It is true that certain skills are required, and knowledge of local custom is necessary, if social kissing is to be conducted with aplomb. Furthermore, continued practice is essential if these learned skills are to be retained to their full effectiveness.
To this point I have excluded mention of hand-kissing, although this certainly qualifies as an authentic form of social exchange. My impression is that the practice has fallen somewhat into disuse in the Anglo-Saxon world, being retained principally by Europeans of Latin origin and brazen egotists. Again a quandary arises in circumstances when a lady extends her hand. Kiss it or shake it? A wrong choice can be socially irredeemable. Of course, moderation should be exercised always — multiple kissing extending from finger tip to elbow is ludicrous. Kissing the palm, sniffing or licking the fingers should also be avoided. The kisser’s lips should be clean, dry and leave no stains, moisture or debris on the kissee. Hand-kissing accompanied by a loud intake of breath, bowing, posturing, flourishing of headgear or other articles of clothing, clicking of the heels, stamping of the feet—any of which might be considered extravagant in today’s unimaginative world—should be performed with studied discretion.
However, I believe that a strong case can be made for extended use of this method of salutation. Not only is it supported by centuries of tradition among persons of culture but also, when conducted with dignity, becomes a graceful gesture quite exempt from physical hazards. Support for the revival of this practice is invited.