There is a piece in The New York Times that is near and dear to my heart because it is about that which is so complicated to do properly. How do you gauge each of the physical variations on saying hello that you might participate in with your variety of friend groups, and do the proper thing in return? Some like to hug, some prefer the peck on one cheek, some go with two, some three. Then there are the air-kissers, and then there are the handshakers. There are the people who just go for it (see photo above). There are also those friends who prefer not to touch at all, but whom you mistake for those who do and move in for a smooch or cheek clasp or nose nuzzle only to be pushed away or fall on your face when they back up in fear.
To confuse matters even further, sometimes people change it up. For instance, I learned my standard form of cheek peck, lips only slightly touching check, not an air kiss but not a full blown gesture meant to leave lipstick, in college among friends from the East Coast; in the South my hellos were dominated by an old-fashioned arm-hug. I hug or kiss based on who I'm meeting, and what I know about them. And I try to read visible cues, but those readings have been known to go embarrassingly wrong. So you see, it's a condundrum! It gets even worse when it's hot out and your cheek (or body) is covered in a veneer of perspiration, as we've discussed in a recent Sweatiquette. Or when someone is in your doorway and space is minimal and you sort of hug them awkwardly with one arm and push your face close to theirs and whisper, creepily, "hello." It's enough to give up having friends over. But that would be drastic.
Fortunately, Henry Alford, Vanity Fair contributing editor and the author of a modern manners guide, is in the Times to follow up on advice about hello-kiss etiquette given in the paper in 1999, again in 2006, during the swine-flu days of 2009, and so on. This is nothing if not a pervasive problem. Alford writes, "for many people, social kissing is among the more mysterious forms of human interaction." He goes on to describe various hilarious misfires, including that errant kiss that lands between lip and cheek that everyone's done at least once, and the time an American tried to hug his Dutch cousin (not a euphemism), who went in for the triple kiss. Fascinating aside: According to Daniel Akst, author of We Have Met the Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess, "Social kissing might have evolved as a way for people to inoculate themselves against passion, as well as to demonstrate their ability to rein in or even transcend desire." Goodness gracious, we were a bunch of prudes!
But who hasn't laid their hello blearily down in the wrong format at some point or another? The question is, how do we avoid that mortification that occurs afterward? Apparently, you're supposed to follow the signals:
[British etiquette consultant William] Hanson described proper procedure: “If it’s a man and a woman who are greeting each other, the lady proffers her cheek or cheeks. If she doesn’t want to kiss, she extends her hand. If it’s two women, it’s the senior one who sets the terms.”
But both in practice and more abstractly, Alford explains, there's no right answer. It's between the kisser and the kissee, and it's an inexact science:
In their ideal form, greetings are mutually agreed-upon acts that cater to, or at least acknowledge, whichever of the dyad wants the lesser amount of intimacy....
Ideally, the two people greeting each other consider not only the level of intimacy they share, but also their milieu. If, to take an extreme example, they find themselves in an area overrun with Ebola virus, they will want to follow others’ example and adopt the elbow bump.
If all else fails, laugh, and try not to cringe, says Alford, who appears to be taking a positively cavalier route with regard to this dilemma. Alas, it seems we are on our own, left to fail and fail again as often as we meet new people and interact with them inappropriately.
On the up side: If history is any precedent, we can expect an article in the New York Times within the next few years to help guide the hello-kiss way yet again. So, keep your lips on.