The Awkward Lip-Kiss Greeting

Dear Helena,

Lately I have noticed that more and more people have been doing the kiss-on-the-lips thing when they greet you and say goodbye, particularly if it’s in a casual setting like somebody’s house for a dinner party. I’m not talking air kiss (which is awkward enough), but an actual peck on the actual lips. Am I a prude for thinking this is a little inappropriate? It seems too intimate or something. I’m a married woman, if that makes a difference. And I live in California. Maybe this is a California thing. Anyway, what the hell? —Kiss and Tell

Dear Kiss and Tell,

There are no clear rules on how you should physically greet or say goodbye to someone you know. Should you hug or should you kiss? One cheek or two? Often it depends on whom you’re greeting: male or female, gay or straight, a close friend or an acquaintance. Without clear protocols, people can get confused. Once, at the end of a drunken dinner party, a half-French friend of mine went to say goodbye to one of the other guests. “Shall we do a French kiss?” she said, meaning a kiss on each cheek. He started making out with her. (Happily, she didn’t mind.)

A peck on the lips is a highly unusual mode of greeting. But before I get to that, I want to address the question of hug versus cheek kiss. I prefer the latter as a standard greeting. With hugs, there is so much that can go wrong. Amy Pandya, a grad-student researcher in LA, says: “People here do the bend-at-the-waist hug. They lean over from afar and hug you round the shoulders. That seems fake to me. I’d prefer a hearty handshake to a half hug.” Or the hug may go on too long. Ten seconds is the max, says David Lebovitz, a cookbook author in Paris. I’m British, so I think three seconds of full-body contact is plenty (unless somebody died). This may sound harsh, but try hugging a friend and counting “one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi,” and you’ll see what I mean.

In contrast, a cheek kiss is straightforward. You just swoop in and out. Make sure you make contact with the other person’s cheek. Physically touching someone when you meet and part is an act of trust and intimacy. Air kissing makes it look like you think the other person has germs.

It would be nice if gender didn’t influence people’s choice of greeting. Certainly it would be simpler. But men vary in their level of comfort with male-male physical contact. James Nestor, a San Francisco writer, says, “Girls hug girls, guys hug girls, guys don’t hug guys.” For Nestor, a handshake is preferred. Often men clasp hands, then hug each other’s shoulders with their free arm. Their joined hands form a barrier between them so their bodies can’t come too close. The man-hug typically ends with a pat on the back. As Mac McKenzie, a retired phone-company lineman in San Francisco, says: “It’s like the tap in tag-team wrestling. It shows it’s time to separate.”

But whatever gender is involved, lip kissing is unusual. Some people I talked to had encountered it, but not many. Since it’s so egregious, people don’t know what to make of it. If the lip-kisser is a close friend, you may take it as a sign of deep affection and put up with it. McKenzie says a few close friends lip-kiss him, and it’s OK, provided the kiss is a “dry peck, with no feeling that something else is being broadcast.” He wasn’t happy to receive a lip kiss from an acquaintance who “had an unkempt beard and licked his lips a lot.”

If someone regularly greets you with a lip kiss, you could try to preempt him or her by going for the cheek. If the person is a dear friend, throw in a hug too, and if it’s your long-lost cousin, extend the hug to 10 seconds. But lips are for lovers only.

Table Manners appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.