Times change, I guess. When I was young, and mouthwash had not yet been invented, I often tried to avoid greeting the people my parents invited to the house. It wasn’t my breath I feared, but theirs. My mother tried to explain it away by telling me about the different customs and diets of their friends and encouraged me to merely shake their hands.
It worked, I guess, because for years I thought the handshake was all there was to it when I was introduced. I even learned to hold my breath when I got close, on the theory that if theirs smelled bad to me, maybe it was reciprocal. Only in middle age, believe it or not, did I realize that in the intervening years, the hug had been introduced for encounters with close friends. Up until then, I had assumed hugging was pretty well restricted to the back seat of inconspicuously parked cars -I lived a fairly reserved, and cautious lifestyle.
I have to admit that I was more puzzled about the Europeans, however: unlike the North American habit of aiming your lips at another identical set -and only with, like really good friends- they seemed uncertain of the normal facial anatomy and hunted about on alternate cheeks searching for them. As a matter of fact, if you actually examined the greeting, it was more like an ear-kiss, or even an air-kiss with their lips bumbly searching for the appropriate venue. And inevitably they gave up after two or three unsuccessful attempts.
My mother had been right about the different customs, but painfully Prairie in her pedagogical instructions. Or maybe the custom was more Darwinian, and 1950ies Winnipeg had not yet wandered onto the evolutionary mainstream. At any rate, I think that what you learn as a child influences how you interact with the world, not to mention the web you subsequently weave for strangers.
But I remain puzzled at the varieties of the different salutations, despite watching them on TV, or streaming the greetings online. That there are certain protocols, I have no doubt, and yet they seem so fluid to my eyes. Sometimes the lips actually touch the cheeks, at other times it’s only the cheeks that engage; at times it’s one lunge, although it may be more -as if maybe they’ve forgotten whether or not they’ve already done that side only moments after they’ve left it. Of course, maybe they phone each other beforehand to decide how many to do when they meet… A simple unimanual handshake seems easier, though.
Anyway, I came across what I thought might be an instruction manual the other day in the Conversation. It was a short little essay written by Mathieu Avanzi, Maître de conferences en linguistique francaise, from the Sorbonne Université. https://theconversation.com/which-cheek-and-how-many-in-france-and-beyond-a-kiss-isnt-just-a-kiss-124917
He explained that ‘In the English-speaking world, friends and family generally greet each other with a wave, handshake or hug, depending on their degree of intimacy. In France and other countries, however, the kiss is more common – not on the lips, but a symmetrical brush of the cheeks.’ You can already see why I thought I might learn something useful from the article.
‘The image is well known in world culture and is a part of everyday life in much of Europe, but the ritual can seem impenetrable to the uninitiated. Would you kiss someone the same way in Marseilles as in Madrid? Which cheek should you present first? And how many kisses?’ At last, I assumed, a hitherto-locked door would be opened.
Little did I think that it would be the door to a labyrinth: ‘while many Anglo-Saxons believe that kissing as a greeting is unique to France, the practice is common in a wide range of European and Latin countries, as well as Russia and certain Arabic and sub-Saharan nations.’ Fair enough, they’re all ‘over there’, right?
And, of course, ‘There’s no consensus among historians, anthropologists and other experts of human behavior.’ I mean, ‘Is it a ritualized form of ancestral behavior, like sniffing each other for recognition, or is it an emotional one arising from childhood?’ Given the number of cheeks sampled, I rather favour the sniff theory. And yet, ‘The question becomes even more complex when one tries to understand contextual factors. There’s the event itself (saying hello, goodbye, wishing someone a happy new year, etc.), and then there’s the relationship between the people involved (it was long reserved for family members…). Kissing between men was once stigmatized, yet is common in certain contexts and some Slavic cultures.’ There are as many rules as regions.
I soon realized that I wasn’t going to get an answer I could easily use on someone I happened to recognize on the street, or anything. And anyway, who makes the first lunge, and on which cheek? It could so easily go wrong -like those awkward first teenage kisses where you have to make sure you keep your nose out of the way of your giftee’s. It’s much worse when your teeth are wearing braces and it even hurts to smile -although nobody knows if your lips are bleeding in the dark, I guess.
Oh yes, and how many tries do you get before the other person gets a turn, or maybe decides to take matters onto your own cheek, before you finish? I mean, I used to get confused when I was first learning the simple hug: you have to decide beforehand which arm goes over which shoulder, eh? There, you can usually read the intentions of the other by gauging the height of their hands and adjust accordingly. Well, that’s the theory at any rate, but I still make mistakes.
Cheeks and lips are more… intimate, though, aren’t they? A mistake there would be really embarrassing, especially if you’re trying to impress the other person with your European savoir faire. Sort of like, well, reaching for their hand in an a gallant attempt to kiss it, only to have said hand suddenly, and unexpectedly withdrawn for fear of being bitten, or whatever.
No, I think my mother had it right: when in doubt, proffer your own hand and hold your breath. The lips only come later -well, if you’re lucky.