The Australian left-hander will never forget the Oval ground
IN OPUS Polyhistoricum de Osculis, his seminal 1,040- page treatise on kissing, the 17th-century German polymath Martin von Kempe identified 20 kinds of kiss.
This includes the kiss of reconciliation, the hypocritical kiss, the kiss bestowed on inferiors by their superiors, the kiss carrying contagion, the lustful and adulterous kiss, the kiss used in academic degree ceremonies and, obviously, the kiss planted on the Pope’s foot.
Regrettably, he left out the air kiss. This is a shame, because these are fastmoving times, oscular etiquette-wise, and it seems we could benefit from a little Germanic rigour on the subject.
Last week, for example, it was reported that the UKIndia Business Council, an eminently serious government-sponsored trade promotion body, had been obliged to devise a whole new course to inform British businessmen, among other things, that they should refrain from kissing their hosts when visiting the subcontinent.
How wild is that
British businessmen, kissing?
How wild is that? “Not very, actually,” insists Judi James, body language and social behaviour expert.
“Social kissing has been common in certain circles in Britain since the 1920s.
But until fairly recently it was mostly confined to relatives or close friends, and to what you might call the excitable professions: the theatre, the media, fashion - anywhere you might call someone ‘darling’, basically. It’s now infinitely more widespread. Even accountants do it.”
In parts of London, James adds darkly, “We’re now starting to see the advent of nonsexual lip kissing.”
Gradually, almost insidiously, Brits have over the past few years been transformed into a nation of positively effusive kissers.
The air kiss is probably not yet a universally accepted form of greeting in, say, the working men’s clubs in deepest Yorkshire.
But in countless other equally unsuitable contexts up and down the country, stiffupper- lipped Brit reserve is fighting a losing battle. We love kissing. Can’t get enough of it.
No one’s exactly sure why this sudden explosion of oral promiscuity has come about, though there are plenty of theories.
Are we copying continental manners? Or is it down to the increasing feminisation of the workplace? Some argue it’s yet further evidence of the ongoing collapse of social formalities across the board, or merely a natural consequence of our being in such a desperate hurry to do everything these days, including form relationships.
Sociologists, mostly, think the great kissing pandemic is part of a general ‘inflation of intimate signals’ they’ve been observing since the 60s. An earlier explosion of social kissing in America - which, like Britain, has tended over the past couple of centuries to shy away from embarrassing displays of physical intimacy - was attributable to the fact that ‘separations are no longer allowed’, Murray Davis, of the University of California, observed as long ago as 1977.
“We kiss people we used to hug, hug people we used to shake hands with, and shake hands with people we used to nod to.”
The British social kiss, James says, is ‘a much more nurturing, a much closer signal’ than the handshake: “It’s about fast-track bonding and empathy. It also allows you to smell the other person - your nose is right by the pulse behind their ear, you can sniff their perfume and have a fairly good guess at what they had for lunch. It’s a far more intimate, personal, instant connection.”
Whatever is driving it, the rise and rise of the social kiss has created a whole new raft of excruciating etiquette issues. To kiss or not to kiss - or, increasingly, how to kiss - is now a major social conundrum, a veritable minefield of manners.
Should we opt for the oldfashioned, perhaps fatally uptight handshake, or the potentially over-familiar smacker? If the latter, do we lay a hand loosely on the other person’s shoulder, or firmly squeeze their upper arm (and what, by the way, should we do with the other hand)? Right cheek first, or left? Skin contact or no skin contact? And, most nerveracking of all, one kiss or two?
Confusion and embarrassment
It’s all too easy to get it wrong. You’ve been there, I’m sure: mouth fixed in a reassuring grin, you opt boldly for a single brisk brush, pucker up, dive in, deliver, pull back, open your eyes - and find the recipient still leaning hopefully forward, neck extended and opposite cheek proffered for a follow-up.
Undeterred, you plunge in with your second, just as he or she withdraws. Or not. In any event, confusion and embarrassment are rarely far away, which, whatever you may feel about the unpleasant clasp of a damp and fetid paw, was rarely the case with the handshake.
But, dammit, we are entitled to be confused. A kiss is, after all, a highly ambiguous gesture at the best of times.
The Australian left-hander will never forget the Oval ground
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