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Kiss and Tell 

How to express fond feelings without mussing your lipstick

Wednesday, Mar 19 2003
Dear Social Grace,

I feel more than a little silly asking this question, but what is the proper way to give or receive a social kiss? Do you modify the approach depending on the sex, age, or relationship of the person (e.g., giving Great-Aunt Mary a kiss at a family event vs. being the recipient of an affectionate kiss from my cousin's fiance)?

Is the objective for both people to kiss one another on the cheek or should one extend an "air kiss" if the proximity is awkward?

Gratefully yours,

Dear Puckered Madam or Sir,

The "air kiss," as opposed to the actual kiss, is a common greeting, goodbye, or friendly display in certain circles. It's generally used by people who are not truly on kissing terms but who feel the need for an obvious display of affection. And it has its practical aspects: It's less likely to smear lipstick or spread germs than a real kiss. Indeed, there is anecdotal evidence that the air kiss originated among aristocratic French ladies who wanted to express fond feelings without disturbing their painstakingly applied makeup -- and without exposing themselves to the plague. This social kiss has moved, through the ages, from the halls of Versailles right on down to the health clubs of the Marina, and modern urbanites from Calais to Cupertino employ it in all sorts of situations. Once reserved for women meeting one another, the practice is increasingly common among men -- and not only among the ascot-and-Campari set.

Since the age of Louis XIV, advances in lipstick technology and the introduction of new antibiotics have blurred the boundaries between air kisses and actual kisses. These days, the objective of such a kiss depends more on circumstance than on the sex or age of the people involved. In a strictly social environment -- for example, when you're meeting your cousin's fiance for the first time or greeting a casual acquaintance at a party -- the goal is probably to kiss the air somewhere near the person's cheek, perhaps with cheeks touching if you're feeling especially affectionate. In Europe, you'll often get three kisses (usually left cheek, right cheek, left cheek), but two are enough here at home, and many people stop at one. Most folks here, too, start on the left, but you should try to accommodate your kissing partner. A common stance is to clasp your partner's hands or place hands on shoulders or upper arms. Your dear Aunt Mary or a very good friend, though, may expect to actually kiss your face -- lipstick and germs be damned.

But you needn't let yourself be kissed against your will. A slight head turn is an easy way to prevent lip-to-lip contact with a new acquaintance. Hellos and goodbyes with the people close to us (or pretending to be so) are often accompanied by a symbolic touch; you can also replace a kiss (air or otherwise) with a warm, two-handed handshake or a handshake-shoulder pat combination.

Dear Social Grace,

What is your responsibility at the theater to people behind you when your view is blocked by the person in front of you? The theater in question was a sold-out general seating. It had very slight banking of seats, and my companion and I were at the outer edge, the very last seats together we could find. My companion took the outer seat. His view was partly blocked by the tall gentleman in front of him, but he was able to lean to an angle that worked for him (he said).

Just before the play started, the tall guy swapped seats with his much shorter companion, possibly in response to her view being blocked. Chain reaction time! I folded up my windbreaker and sat on it. The person behind my friend complained that she was short. As I still was blocked by the guy in front of me, my friend offered me his coat to add to my pile. I declined, trying to be fair to the person who had objected. It turned out somewhat uncomfortable physically for me. For the scenes where the characters were in front of the tall guy (a fairly high percentage of the play), I could see their faces, and not below that, if I craned my neck. Apparently it was worse for the woman behind my friend, as she and her companion left at intermission. My friend and I took their seats and were both able to see comfortably for the second act.

Was I remiss in augmenting what nature has failed to give me? Or is it reasonable for me to make reasonable attempts to see, and let the person behind me fend for themselves? I assume if I had been shifting my body back and forth to see, it would have been much more distracting to all those around me.

Charles Belov

Dear Mr. Belov,

In padding your seat, you did nothing too contrary to theater-etiquette guidelines: As you suggest, constant shifting about in your seat would've been more disturbing to others in the audience. Most theater rows are staggered so that seats aren't directly behind one another, in the hope that shorter people will be able to see at least over the shoulders of any taller people in front of them. (This is one reason that we should avoid turning and whispering in a companion's ear during a play -- it may block the view of people behind us.) Indeed, it is not unheard of for theaters to supply booster seats for people who are very small.

Sometimes the price we pay for live theater is less-than-perfect comfort. I'd love to believe that, in a situation such as this, no one would be left to "fend for themselves." If you are very tall, perhaps you could try to be aware of people behind you struggling to see. A shift in one direction or another may make a difference to the person behind you without compromising your comfort too much. But I wonder why no one here sought out an usher. I attend the theater fairly regularly, and I've witnessed more than one usher satisfactorily resolve this sort of problem.

About The Author

Social Grace


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