In a horizon-broadening move, I bought tickets for No Man’s Land at The Gate. My sister readily agreed to come along even after I briefed her on what to expect. “This is Pinter, so its not going to be fun: uncomfortable silences and plenty of bleakness. On the other hand, one of the guys from Little Britain is in it”. On arrival we greeted The Art Collector whom she’s met once before and only then I realised I hadn’t warned her about one important aspect of the evening: there would be kissing. He leaned forward; she leaned back. He kept going and she rigidly offered a cheek. When my other friend, the Cultured Software Executive wilfully ignored her horror and lunged, she broke into a sweat and made a hasty departure to the Ladies so she could compose herself.
The next day the Brother rang in distress. He’d just been to a corporate lunch. “What’s the story with the kissing? I hardly know these people and they’re all kissing. What am I supposed to do?”
We’re not of kissing stock. Not with each other and not with strangers. In fact, an aversion to unnecessary physical contact meant my granny was appalled by the introduction of the Sign of Peace at Mass. My father used to poke her in the side and make her shake hands while we giggled at her outrage. Honestly, mocking your poor granny at Mass. We’re definitely going to Hell. Once, when the Brother in America was heading off, we made our goodbyes by nodding significantly from across the room and I believe I raised a hand in a rather jerky attempt at a wave. My then fiancé looked on in horror. “What’s wrong with you people? You won’t see him for a year. You’re supposed to hug or something.”
“We’re not like that,” I snapped. He looked aghast and before he could start thinking about the terrible mistake he’d made by getting involved with my family, I changed the subject.
Of course I’ve moved on since then and have grown accustomed to the expectations of people with different approaches to meeting and greeting. The problem is there are no rules. Time was when only Arabs or Soviet leaders engaged in male to male cheek kissing but now even that certainty has gone. Playful back-slapping has given way to hugging and I’ve heard that in some circles, non-homosexual male kissing is quite the thing. Let the blame-storming begin: the Celtic Tiger and the telly. If it’s not the continental home-owning brigade then it’s an overdose of The Sopranos. Look, France and Italy have much to offer; the weather; the food; the wine. And while its great value to bring home the Rose at €4 a bottle, could we not leave the kissing there? The “a trois” is torture with the wrong people.
It’s creating social chaos. No one knows with whom or when and social context is no use at all. Some people are kissers and some are not. Others kiss some of the people some of the time. Our cosmopolitan lifestyles have curdled horribly with our agricultural backgrounds and the result is a thousand micro-cultures of etiquette and potential embarrassment. Who doesn’t dread the awful moment as your greeter’s lips zero in on your face and your hesitation, though split second, is long enough for them to realise they’ve badly miscalculated the nature of your relationship.
Maybe you offered one cheek and then rashly withdrew, only to realise the kisser is now smooching the space where your other cheek was just a second ago. You can dart back in but the whole process is shambolic. Have you shown yourself up as a hick? Did they presume too much? Oh God, please make it end.
I’ve tried to work out where my own boundaries are but there’s no logic. With some I’m a natural but I can’t figure out the distinguishing factor. It’s not a case of affection or lack thereof. I don’t kiss college friends of whom I am very fond, yet I frequently find myself grimacing as I kiss people I don’t really like at all. Maybe someone should put us out of our misery? My sister said a new friend in their group started kissing and everyone was too polite to object. Much to their relief, one of the gang returned from a year in Australia and put a stop to it. “Woah! Since when did we start kissing?”
The problem is it all happens so fast. You meet, one party goes for it, the other instinctively responds and then someone has second thoughts. There’s a screech of brakes as you realise its too much, too soon and too late to pull back. You finish the act but you both know its all been a horrible mistake.
Citing “When in Rome, do as the Romans” is no help since one never knows where one is. Dublin 4 isn’t the only place that’s a state of mind. I’ve discovered though, that geography is important.
During what we ironically refer to as “Summer”, I attempted a Sunday Lunch. I imagined one of those events where there would be sparkling repartee and admiration for my cooking. As usual expectation and reality were distant cousins. The risotto turned into rice pudding and inviting my urban metrosexual friends to Enfield created an unexpected moment of self-revelation. When one was making his departure I automatically put out my hand. He burst out laughing. “What are you doing shaking my hand?” I laughed too, astonished. When we meet in town it would never occur to me to shake hands. We always kiss, but now that we were on my home turf I had instinctively reverted to type. The woman was firmly back in the bog.
On the bright side (or is it?) the Brother in America seems to be making progress. When he leaves now we make a desperately pathetic effort at affection. We aim for a hug, though its turns more into patting the others back while keeping our arms so rigid that actual bodily contact is practically imperceptible. It’s excruciating, but hey, we’re trying.
Generally its better to avoid the whole business by engaging in a Western style Quick Draw. If you thrust your hand forward for shaking quickly and dramatically enough, it might put the kisser off completely. The pre-emptive rejection of their gesture might throw them, but it’s better than the embarrassment of banging cheek bones and getting all flustered.
The trick is in seizing the initiative. It’s a bit like the advice my friend the psychoanalyst gives when boarding a bus. Don’t automatically sit beside an empty seat because a smelly odd person might take it. Make sure you choose who to sit beside. If you’re not a kisser, don’t be discombobulated by a presumptuous lovee. Preserve your dignity and put out your hand because sometimes, the old ways are best.