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Their lips puckered, poised for action. Then came the sounds in my ear. “Mmmmwaaaah!!” (One air kiss blown in the region of my right cheek). “Mmmmwah!” (Another to the left).
All followed by the exclamation, “You look fabulous!!”
Those final fatuous words – as a participant, an observer and, ultimately, a journalist – and the vacuous familiarity inherent in this rampant ritual, known as The Social Kiss, makes me want to scream.
Frankly, I’m sick of it. It’s as empty of meaning as the phrase we know and hate in Toronto – as in "city" – “world class.” Since when are Canadians, suddenly, so continental… so high society… so Hollywood?
Charles Pachter, Canadian artist extraordinaire – renowned for figuratively putting the Queen of England on a moose – years ago exhibited a series of paintings, titled Social Motions, an astute observation of cultural body language.
Pachter acknowledges that The Rosedale Kiss, one of the pivotal paintings, is a telltale portrait of the ambiguity and discomfort that WASP-ish North Americans feel while cloning the European tradition of embracing and puckering up in public.
The Rosedale Kiss features an obviously well heeled woman being greeted by a gentleman attempting to proffer a kiss. While offering her left cheek, she simultaneously fends off her suitor’s approach with an extended left arm, effectively preventing him from actually touching her. Notes Pachter, “While participating in the social kiss, she’s putting an unspoken limitation on physical intimacy.”
Domenick Dunne, acclaimed author and iconic cultural chronicler, chuckles at the canny Hollywood twist on the here-to-stay trend of social climbers pecking each others’ cheeks.
“If done properly,” muses Dunne, “It gives the kisser a chance to eyeball the room – once from each side – to see who else of importance is there, all the while pretending to focus on the kissee.”
Dunne candidly admits, “I’m embarrassed to say that although I’m uncomfortable with the ritual, I find myself reciprocating.”
Some claim the social kiss originated with the Romans who reserved the cheek for equals, the feet for minions and the ground for slaves.
For most of us, the kiss was once bestowed exclusively on family, dear friends and lovers. What makes the social kiss so cloying and annoying is that it assumes a relationship that doesn’t exist, in a culture that is a long way from being Continental.
And the most offensive and gratuitous aspect of all is that the commonplace Social Kiss is a poor and distant cousin of the genuine tactile gesture.
In social situations, the kissing initiative is taken, not granted. Note the awkwardness of this rite. As lips approach, there’s such confusion over which cheek to offer, how many times, all the while trying to avoid a collision of noses, and then ultimately gazing into hair or air.
During my long tenure as a social columnist covering the Toronto scene, I was considered fair prey and a knowing participant in this greeting game which has now usurped the traditional handshake and “Nice to see/meet you” routine.
From my point of view – with all this lip dodging and head bobbing – I miss the chance to grasp another’s hand and gaze directly into another’s eyes. Handshakes are wonderfully revealing – limp, firm, clammy, bone-crushing...
And above all – never, by the air kiss, be fooled.
Call me old fashioned, but I’ll take eye contact over air contact every time.
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