In some countries, greeting friends with a kiss is the common custom. France, Italy, Greece and Hollywood come to mind. Not full-on, passionate kissing, but a quick buss on the cheek. First on one side, then the other. Men, women, it doesn’t matter. In some countries you have to do each cheek twice or you'll deeply insult someone, and before you know it there’s a whole Hatfield-and-McCoy thing happening because you ignored a thousand-year-old custom.
The French sign letters between friends and family members, male or female, with “Big kisses.” They probably think we sign our letters with “Firm handshakes.” I grew up when we were a handshake nation. Of course, there was always one aunt who wanted to kiss me when I was small. She was from the “the old country,” my mother would tell me. For years, I thought that was the name of the place she was from, The Old Country. It was somewhere over the ocean, but I could never find the place on a map.
My mother was not a big kisser; my father was not a big hugger. They were not cold, unemotional people, it simply wasn’t the custom at that time. It would have been way beyond my comfort zone if they had suddenly gone all touchy-feely on me. Dad’s greeting to almost all adults who visited our house was to offer them a beer. If he really liked you, he would pop the top before handing it to you.
Of course, everybody's family has their own culture and traditions, and my family story may seem stiff compared to yours. But things have changed. Over the years we, too, have become a nation of kissers and embracers. Celebrities and socialites are famous for air kisses -- they never actually get close enough to muss up each other’s makeup, or to see the scars from the most recent facelift.
Like soccer, kissing has snuck up on us. Now even “regular” people do it. You go to a dinner party and by the time you leave, you’re supposed to give people you just met that night a peck on the cheek. Well, worse things could happen, and often do.
Some people won’t settle for a kiss on the cheek and want one full on the lips. In a time of resurging drug-resistant TB, the deadly MERS virus, the H5N1-type flu and just plain icky-ness, what do you do? Recoil in horror? Scream, “What are you trying to do, kill me?” I don't want to insult anyone, but I don't want to catch the disease of the week, either. If you watch the news, we should all be walking around in hospital masks and bathing in Purell, not kissing each other. But maybe this person is from The Old Country, where they do things differently. So I usually say, “I think I'm getting a cold.” If that doesn't work, I lean in and say, “I think my herpes has cleared up. How's it look to you?”
Like everyone else on the planet, I've learned the art of social kissing. I'm just careful about it. Or so I thought. I picked up my cat the other day and rubbed his face with mine, and after a few seconds he stuck out his tongue and kissed me.
“Did you see that?” I asked Sue. “Wasn’t that cute?”
“Yeah. Very cute,” she said. “You wanna know what he was licking right before he kissed you?”
Turns out it's true: A cat will land on his feet when you drop him from lip high.
Contact Jim Mullen at JimMullenBooks.com.