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Kiss Greeting

6 December, 2012


(The rites, rules and riddles of the kiss-greeting)

© David Astle

You’re the proud owner of an orbicularis oris – but do you know how to use it? Odds are you don’t, not in every situation, and this crucial little muscle is due for some punishment in the Christmas parties, clan reunions and summer barbies around the corner.

Better known as the kiss muscle, the orbicularis is that flexible band around your mouth responsible for the pucker. Trumpet players call it embouchure, that goldfish pout James Morrison affects before snogging his horn. It’s the shape we adopt for whistling, pea-shooting, wooooing like ghosts or planting smooches on those we love.

Or sorta like. Or know from way back. Or feel obliged to peck. Because kissing is a complex business, made even trickier by the office Christmas party. Come December, the advent of silliness, work-lines can blur and not all due to wholesale champagne.

For now, let’s dispatch pashing to the backseat. Tonsil hockey is off the agenda. Teens and movie queens can swap all the drool they desire; this story’s focus is the kiss-greeting. Hi Jack”¦Hi Jill”¦lovely to see you”¦ [kiss] or [kiss-kiss] or [shake] or [shake-kiss] or [no shake-no kiss] or lately in Europe [kiss-kiss-kiss]. No wonder Jack and Jill are looking for a road-map.

George W Bush, for one, has a slippery hold on protocol. The American President caused a furore last year when going lip-to-lip with his new Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings. The kiss was intended (I’m guessing) as a gesture of congratulations, welcoming Spellings to the cabinet, though CNN went bananas with a full action replay on prime-time.

Ouch, winced Meredith Viera, an anchor on the show’s View segment. “He went right for the lips. He didn’t go for the cheeks.”

In all its icky gravitas, lip-to-lip remains an upper rung of the intimacy ladder and not the reserve of open-plan offices or corridors of power. Peter Alexander, general manager of his own sleepwear label, seldom kisses colleagues in the office habitat, an instinct largely shared by across the corporate landscape.

“It’s definitely a handshake in the work environment,” says Alexander. Socially it’s different, because are more prepared for a kiss, but work tends to be a little more serious and professional.”

But what about when colleagues grow into pals? “If you socialize outside work,” says Nicole Gorton, director of Robert Half (Sydney), a global recruiting agency, “then I think that allows for a little more intimacy. Employee-to-employee especially, so long as it’s done with professionalism, and that comes with confidence. As a boss, however, anything more than handshake is still too borderline.”

Gray’s Anatomy (the manual, not the TV show) will tell you that lips are elaborate things, sensitive beyond compare. A map of nerves links the mouth directly to the amygdala, the emotional seat of the brain, which is why canoodles are seen (or preferably not) as a potent and passionate mix. Said another way, shouldn’t George be exercising his orbicularis and 33 other kiss-muscles on Laura, his first lady, back at the ranch?

Nerves are one fraction of the kisser’s buzz. Crushing lips with your lover can also release such feel-good hormones as adrenaline and oxytocin. Heartbeats climb, stress levels slump and calories can be shed into the bargain. Who needs Pump if a marathon nuzzle is on offer?

Such primal impacts however, not to mention cold-sore transfers, tell us why alternatives were invented. Western society prefers affection minus infection and amity without ambiguity. Enter the air-kiss. The Clayton’s kiss, or intimate-lite, the air-kiss is a germ-free alternative to the romantic original. Yet having the air-kiss option has created even deeper mystery. When and where is it on? Who leads? Which side first?

The right, according to Professor Onur Gunturkun, a neuroscientist from Bochum University in Germany. For the last two years Gunturkun loitered in the train stations and departure lounges of Europe and America, spying on people kissing. His goal was to learn our “head motor bias” as a species, which way we turned when the pucker was imminent. Gunturkun observed twice as many couples proffer and peck their right cheeks for pecking, just as Rodin had captured in his famous statue, The Kiss. Babies in the womb and chicks in the nest exhibit the same bias.

Etiquette enforces our body’s hard-wiring. In her book Miss Manner’s Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behaviour, American author Judith Martin nominates the woman (or higher ranking woman in a female-to-female meeting) as the one to initiate any air-kiss ritual by presenting the right cheek first. Says Martin, this pecking order applies to both work and social soirees.

Down under, things happen differently. Questioning a dozen convivial creatures, from him to her, junior to senior, the male was commonly cast as the kiss-greeter’s leader, unless the female pre-empts the lead, most often with a thrust-out hand.

“I’m a handshaker,” declares Mik Grigg, 33, social columnist with the Sunday Age. Her diary is jammed with launches and parties and no end of kiss-confusion. Out and about, Grigg will try to bypass the fuss with a shake. “Putting you hand out forward makes it clear. But sometimes guys will take that as an opportunity to take your hand and pull you in.” Grigg shivers at a recent memory. “Guys with a few drinks want to be seen as knowing people or being liked, so they haul in as many girls as they can. It’s trophy hunting. It’s more about them than you.”

Peter Alexander, at ease in the kiss-and-greet jungle, has never been a “puller-inner”. “I don’t go fishing like that. An extended hand is definitely a sign that’s what the woman is comfortable with. Though most women I know wait to see what you do first.”

An impromptu tango, the air-kiss demands a knack for body-reading and thinking on your feet. “I go for the single kiss,” says Alexander, 40, learning the dance from fashion circles where everyone excels at “being fake and lovely”. “But if the body language says the other person is going for a second, then I’m very well prepared.”

There is such a thing as the air-kiss move. The lean-in is the universal cue, coupled by the loose-hold gesture, whether it’s the hand, the elbow, or the gesture in itself. For theatrical reasons, when the hobnob stakes are high, the mwahh-mwahh sound is as much a part of the pantomime.

Simple in theory, yet even this manouevre is a puzzle in motion. All too often the mid-air peck can mutate into the cheek-press. Just as the cheek-press can shift a few degrees toward centre and become the cheek-kiss, with all those infernal Euro-multiples added for the fun of it.

“If you live around the world,” says Nicole Gorton, “you’ll find that every country does something different – in and out of the workplace. Some countries do four kisses, some three, some one either side, some lips. Here in Australia we do the one-sider.”

The one-sider, it seems, where contact is variable. These days – especially in Sydney and Melbourne – you’re guaranteed to encounter the air-kiss and all its subtle variations. Dr Kirsten McLean, a sociology lecturer at Monash University, first saw the boom among teens when teaching high school 15 years back. “I watched these girls come up to a group and do the rounds, kiss one, kiss the next. Then up comes a male. He shakes and kisses around the circle. If that happened back at my school, which was very Anglo and non-demonstrative, it would have been urghhh.”

More recently the urghhh is triggered by two scenarios: the Unwarranted Kiss, and the Air-Kiss Clanger.

In the first instance, the peck is a peccadillo. Whether it’s the sleazy uncle making the most of his 65th birthday or a more formal relationship that precludes the cheek-press altogether. Most etiquette manuals condemn using a kiss-greeting when meeting someone for the first time. It’s the handshake or nothing at all. Subsequently, the air-kiss can enter the equation only when some history has been shared and mutual consent is in the air.

In a Sydney PR firm that must remain nameless, a publicist lurched to kiss a client new to the office, only for the client to recoil mid-lurch. The confusion owed to the business “relationship” the two had developed over the phone, prior to meeting in person. For the publicist (male) this signaled an intimacy level that the client (female) wasn’t ready to acknowledge. A large account was jeopardised.

Richard Moore, a Melbourne GP, recalls a female patient whose habit was the air-kiss as soon as she entered the clinic. “It made me feel uncomfortable. There was nothing really intended but for me, the kiss-greeting means a patient is closer to being a friend and that becomes difficult for a doctor. The next time I saw her I manoeuvred her out of the room in such a way as to avoid being kissed.”

The office party is a laboratory devoted to such entanglement. Louise Percy, founder of her own international school of protocol, believes, “A Christmas party with spouses and partners are invited, then air-kissing is fine. But if you’re hosting clients, absolutely not. Protocol is 95% commonsense.

“Though younger people can lack the life experience to understand what commonsense it. If unsure, look at those who have the experience and follow their example.”

Alcohol, says Percy, can ruin a worker in this regard. “Those who are going to do well in the firm may look like they’re drinking too much at the party except they don’t. They join in the spirit but keep in control. It’s the art of diplomatic sipping.”

Sauced or sober, the Air-Kiss Clanger is no less cringeworthy. Here the kisser will fail to mimic the kissee, angling the head out of kilter with the others’ lips. The outcome can be an ear-smooch, a nose clash or, worse, an inadvertent lip-to-lip with no licence to back-pedal.

“Stuffing up can be awful,” agrees Peter Alexander. “Best thing is just to move on. Because if you discuss it, it gets worse. Ultimately if you feel awkward about the kiss-greeting, the whole thing will come out awkward. Once I met a bunch of girls at some gala or other. I gave them all a kiss, one by one around the group. And there happened to be a guy in the group, a straight guy, and I gave him a kiss as well, which was very embarrassing. But what could I do? I was on the kiss bandwagon.”

Nineteen sleeps till Santa, we all are. Best to swot the body language and air your orbicularis.

HOW NOT TO SUCK – A guide to air kissing

  • Humans, on average, will spend two weeks of their lives kissing. You may as well enjoy it.

  • Try to read body language. A loose hold or lean-in are the common signs to proceed.

  • Aim right and light. Lipstick or stubble can rule out close contact anyway.

  • As a rule, once is enough. In Normandy the norm is four (two on each side), while parts of Belgium and Russia can top the charts at six, seriously. Bear hug included.

  • Be adaptable. If the other imagines a second kiss is seemly, then have your weight prepared to shift – and turn the other cheek.

  • “Don’t be prissy about it,” says PR director Donald McNeill of Splash Consulting. “If you’re going to offer a kiss-greeting, be relaxed and genuine.”

  • “Learn from your mistakes and go forward,” says Peter Alexander. Don’t seek trauma counseling over the inevitable stuff-up.

  • When in doubt, shake.

[Sunday Life, December 2005]

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