Thursday, March 27, 2008

Kisses: An Etiquette Guide

On a trip to Barcelona about five years ago I found myself constantly thrusting my hand out to deflect the inevitable lean in for a kiss that served as both a greeting and an introduction. Who were these saucy Catalonian women who wanted kisses instead of handshakes from strangers? Minnesotans don’t do such things.

The fourth or fifth person I met, a confident young woman, smiled at my hand and said, “No handshakes. Here, we kiss.” She leaned in and we kissed each other on the cheeks. It was easy, and once I had someone take the time to tell me what was expected and how it was done, I was relieved. Still, I relished the confused expressions from the women who got my hand before that.

In Barcelona, I remember the rules being very simple. Here in New York, it’s a little different. Is it one kiss, two, or three? Do you actually kiss, or do you just smack the air in the general proximity of the cheek? In the fashion business, it’s even more confusing.

The typical kiss is more of an air-kiss or a mere brushing of cheeks. A young woman in the marketing department of a fashion house based in the Meatpacking District kissed my female colleague once near the cheek after a meeting a couple weeks ago. Thinking it may be just a girl thing, I held out my hand. She either ignored it or used it to pull me in for the kiss -- I don't recall.

Fashion industry trade shows are fraught with such situations. “I’m a hugger,” a burly designer will say, coming at you like a Grizzly on the attack. Or, “Give me some love,” a type-A from California says before you get a stubbley kiss. If it's an Italian designer, you'll definitely get saliva on your face.

I've even seen welcoming man-to-man ass-grabs, (never recieved, I'm relieved to say), and heard tell of the man-to-man crotch grab.

The hugs and kisses will come from both men and women, without warning, without guiding etiquette. Nothing's more awkward than the cheek kiss that turns into an unplanned lip kiss. So it was exciting to see the following guide in the Wall Street Journal’s Fashion and Style section:
Who should initiate a kiss or handshake?
"The higher-ranking person is always right -- no matter if it's right or not," says Ann Marie Sabath, author of "One Minute Manners: Mastering the Unwritten Rules of Business Success." If you're on the receiving end, your job is to mirror the other person -- unless, of course, he or she is totally out of line, in which case you can extend your hand from two feet away or turn to the side to avoid impact.

But Judith Martin, otherwise known as Miss Manners, says the ranking woman should be the decider, or "first presenter," as the etiquette doyenne puts it.

How many kisses?
Communications specialist Joyce Newman says that the number of kisses in the U.S. tends to be industry-specific. She has clients ranging from health-care executives to clothing manufacturers. "Usually it's one cheek -- unless it's my fashionista clients, and they do two."

How should they be executed?
Generally, kiss the right cheek first. "The first presenter gets to choose whether they will actually kiss each other's cheeks, make a smack-smack noise in the air, or simply bump cheeks," Ms. Martin writes. "The partner's job is still to be alert in order to follow suit and not go after someone who doesn't mean it or walk away from someone who does."

If you kiss the husband, your client, should you kiss his wife, whom you've never met?
Look at her arm and take her cue. If she isn't leaning in for a kiss, a warm two-handed shake will suffice.

What should the boss do with subordinates outside work?
"Whatever you do after hours or in social situations is setting a precedent for what you will do in the office in the future," says Ms. Sabath. If you kiss employees at dinner at your home, "they're going to wonder why you didn't do it the next time you see them."

But always follow your own best judgment. Social customs vary so much in different situations that you always have to be on the alert for exceptions to the rules.
That sort of helps.

"Whatever happened to shaking hands?" Christina Binkley writes in the accompanying article. "There is something so American about the firm control of a handshake -- it's about disarming one's opponent and keeping him two feet at bay."

But the International Scientific Forum on Home Hygiene says the cheek kiss spreads fewer (or is it less?) germs than the handshake.

I'm not a kisser. But I will admit that even the air-kiss shows more presence and sincerity than a limp handshake. Then again, why turn every meeting into a first date-like situation?

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