Why we Brits have never got our stiff upper lips round the awkward art of air-kissing

As we prepare to say goodbye to our continental neighbours, how about a brisk British handshake? Bella Younger examines why we’ve never got our stiff upper lips round the awkward art of the mwah-mwah. 

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At first, I thought air-kissing might be a posh thing or a fashion thing, but it seems that it has truly entered the national consciousness. People kiss their relatives, friends and even colleagues. It isn’t pretentious or overly intimate – but it is a social minefield. In the past week alone, I’ve encountered people that I’ve kissed once, kissed twice, hugged, kiss hugged, shaken hands with and kissed while shaking hands. And at times of extreme social anxiety, I’ve been known to go for an awkward contactless wave. Am I being rude – or is it simply time that somebody laid down some rules?

Social kissing has ducked in and out of popularity since the 17th century, explains author and body-language expert Judi James: ‘The handshake allows you to keep your body at a safe distance mwahand your eyes on your potential foe, whereas when you go for an air kiss, your hands are hidden, so it’s literally easier to stab someone in the back.’ The air-kiss made a comeback in the 1920s. ‘Until fairly recently it was mostly confined to relatives or close friends,’ adds James. Now it seems to have invaded more formal business cultures as well as what you might call the Absolutely Fabulous professions.

We’re clearly keen to do it, yet it feels resolutely non-British – and there is a huge margin for error. We are, as a nation, passionate about personal space, hence the awkward waves and rigid hugs. Air-kissing feels too glamorous, too suave for us to do well, and the fact that James says that it ‘causes some level of anxiety and distress’ is not surprising to any of us.

According to social anthropologist Kate Fox, we just haven’t found a suitable greeting replacement since the death of ‘How do you do?’ In a talk at the Hay Festival, she noted that ‘every single other nation on the planet has a straightforward ritual for greeting someone. We seem to be the only ones who can’t reach a consensus on what’s appropriate.’

The Spanish favour two kisses, the Dutch three, while some Germans prefer none. We presumably learned to what the French call faire la bise from the continent, where it is an expression of mutual respect and affection. In France, anything between one and four kisses is de rigueur, but more than two is considered vulgar by the upper classes and different regions favour a different number of ‘mwahs’. It’s little wonder we Brits are confused.

James says that you officially graduate from childhood cuddles to adult air-kissing when you’re tall enough for relatives to cheek-kiss you without toppling over. The problem is nobody seems to be sure if they’re doing it right. If everyone knew exactly what they were doing we’d be free of clumsy lunges and puckered lips left hanging in mid-air. The continent may have brought us la bise but they didn’t leave us instructions on how to use it.

When I was younger, my uncle fell in love with and married my au pair, leading to a Spanish wedding full of relatives with no idea how to properly greet each other. It is Spanish custom to welcome family members of all sexes with a double kiss. By the end of the day, my father had managed to kiss his way into another wedding party by accident. Apparently, he told me, everyone loved his kilt.

British etiquette expert Jo Bryant claims that ‘technique is crucial and you have to have confidence in your gesture. Usually it’s their right cheek first, but prepare to change direction at the last minute. There are no set rules on whether you should go for one or two kisses, but you should rein it in with people you don’t know. Younger people have grown up with social kissing but older people might not feel as comfortable with such an intimate gesture. You mustn’t try to pursue someone who’s unwilling to pucker up.’

Go in with too much aggression and you risk injuring a potential client, go in with too little and you risk delivering a Trump-esque side kiss. For Bryant, sincerity is important. You must remember your hands, make cheek-to-cheek contact and avoid saliva at all costs.

How good is it for our health to be kissing all these strangers? Hands are regularly washed but our faces are potential petri dishes of disease. Should you really be breathing in that acquaintance’s musk? According to YOU’s health expert Dr Clare Bailey, risks of social kissing include infections such as the common cold, flu, chicken pox, measles – even TB or whooping cough. However, you probably get sprayed with more airborne infections in higher quantities simply standing on a crowded train. In essence, avoid people with visible infections such as flu whatever the weather.

Disease aside, I know that the only thing we’re truly risking with an air-kiss is our dignity.

Ooh, that was awkward…

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1. Donald Trump displays the pinnacle of an air-kiss gone awry – an open-mouthed pucker with daughter Ivanka at a rally in January.

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2. Earlier this year, Joan Collins – pictured here with Christopher Biggins – blamed a bout of flu on ‘this ghastly fad of kissing and hugging strangers’. She’s since vowed never to air kiss again.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

3. Vorsprung durch lipstick: Angela Merkel greeted Theresa May with a kiss when she welcomed her to Berlin in 2016 – but apparently went on to rebuff her Brexit demands.

DAVID HARTLEY/REX/Shutterstock​

4. The power move: Princess Diana snubbed Prince Charles at a Valentine’s Day polo match in 1992 after he forgot to kiss her in front of waiting media. When he quickly returned to kiss her cheek, the princess moved her head so the kiss landed near her ear, much to the cringing of the assembled crowd – and the humiliation of Prince Charles.

Kevin Mazur/WireImage

5. John Travolta was labelled ‘creepy’ after pictures of him lunging for Scarlet Johansson’s cheek while clasping her waist at the 2015 Oscars went viral – she later rebuffed all comments by stating that there is ‘nothing strange, creepy or inappropriate about John Travolta’.

Embarrassment-free greetings: a user’s guide

The Bear Hug
Reserved for close family and friends; can be used sparingly when a colleague has had
good news.

The Shoulder Squeeze
For the rare occasion when a colleague has had bad news.

The Handshake
Best executed when meeting new people, making business deals or actively avoiding kissing someone with known halitosis.

The High Five
A failsafe way to greet other people’s children that says ‘I’m cool’ and also minimises the risk of toppling over.

The Friendly Wave
Best used on people you know, but wouldn’t bother to cross the road to greet.