With Valentine’s Day approaching next week and the stores full of hearts, flowers and cupid’s bows, my mind turns toward kissing.
Of course, the really romantic kissing stays between my lovely husband and me, but it strikes me that there are huge differences between America and Europe when it comes to social intimacies — when to kiss, shake hands or hug.
In every country, there is one question that dominates social interaction: What intimacies are you allowed, with whom and when?
French anthropologist Raymonde Carroll, who emigrated to the United States in the 1980s, published “Cultural Misunderstandings,” which explored the great cultural divide between the French and the Americans.
He argued that French people only will converse with people they already know, while Americans only will touch people they know.
I must agree that, generally speaking, Americans are very friendly and happy to strike up conversations with complete strangers at grocery stores, restaurants and pretty much anywhere else.
It reminds me of the pamphlet my father-in-law showed me that was issued to American GIs posted to England during World War II. It warned that the British were pretty shy when it comes to social interaction, and this remains true in the 21st century.
The “Hi, I am Chuck from Alabama. What’s your name?” approach generally does not go down too well in British pubs, which Americans call bars.
Coming from London and the world of public relations and journalism, I got used to the kisses on the cheek and hugs, not only from friends and family, but also, on occasion, from business acquaintances.
I also noticed that this “French habit,” as my father calls it, became more common due to the European Union and the opening of the “Chunnel” — the tunnel under the English Channel linking London to Paris by train.
Having relocated to Coastal Georgia, I have adapted to the social norms of this part of the world. It seems to me that physical greetings around here are most popular in this order:
• Hand shaking: It’s usually very firm with good eye contact — sometimes with the politician-style hand hug to imply extra affection. I find it a bit offensive immediately after a handshake when someone races to use their hand sanitizer — now a standard item in most women’s purses (or handbags, as we call them in England).
• Hugging: Especially popular is the politically correct hug where only the shoulders touch. It includes pats on the back to prove that the hug is nonsexual.
• Hollywood air kissing: This is guaranteed not to spread diseases or smudge makeup. It’s the essential greeting ritual around show business where people who scarcely know each other or who can’t stand each other can execute an embrace without actually touching
So, why do we kiss? The acts of social kissing, hugging and hand shaking are thought to have evolved from the need for strangers to demonstrate that they were not armed but came in peace, a tradition that lingers in the Christian church.
During the Middle Ages, kissing served as a demonstration of one’s social standing: A king’s subjects would kiss his ring, for example. Today, people kiss the Pope’s ring.
Many people did not know how to read and write during the Middle Ages, so they used a kiss as a legal way to seal contracts. A person would draw an “X” on the line and kiss it to make it legal, which is why we still sign our Valentine’s Day cards with lots of kisses: XXXXX.
There is no evidence of historical cultures inserting the hugs as we sometimes do, as in XOXOXOX.
Romantic kissing is a whole other story. Some people claim that kissing provides many health benefits, ranging from boosting immunity to relieving stress and preventing dental decay.
We do know that romantic kissing is a very Western tradition that originated from Europe. The Romans, starting in Southern Europe, enjoyed a strong kissing culture that they spread along with their military conquests.
Kissing is not essential to reproduction, and many cultures have flourished without a single romantic peck.
For example, many people know that Eskimos kiss by rubbing noses.
Before European settlers started colonizing the world, many indigenous people from Africa, Australia and the South Pacific only kissed their infants as part of parental bonding but did not kiss romantic partners.
And while I am sure I have not kissed anywhere near as many men as Mae West, I have to agree with her when she said, “A man’s kiss is his signature.”
God bless America!
Francis grew up in London, England, and moved to Richmond Hill in 2009 with her American husband, Carl, and English dogs. She can be contacted at email@example.com or www.lesleyfrancispr.com.