A hard habit to break.
With recent, unprecedented world events that have unsettled us and sent us all in to some form of ‘lockdown life’, I can’t help but be forced into reconsidering how we greet our fellow humans when life returns to some sort of normal. Humans are social creatures. For the most part we crave and need our social connections and physical contact. Not being able to hug our nearest and dearest during these times can leave us feeling disconnected and lonely.
So, can I dare offer a silver-lining to this imposed social isolation we are all experiencing?
A customary greeting here, under ‘normal’ circumstances, (though its hard to remember what that feels like some days), is a hug and more often than not a kiss, or two, on the cheek. Now, with ’Social Distancing’ becoming our new normal, we have all become familiar with that awkward moment of meeting someone you know; a pause and eye contact that says ‘Oh, wait, hi, are we….no we’re not…so…. elbow bump?… tap ankles? …weirdly wave at each other from a few feet apart?” Usually the moment dissolves in to some sort of uncomfortable moment of silence while we stumble over some meaningless words before getting on with the conversation.
While I was running errands just before ‘lockdown’, someone at the supermarket came in for the customary hug/kiss on the cheek. Creatures of habit we are, so I while I was neither surprised nor offended by the gesture, I quickly declined the inappropriate incoming intimacy.
Which led me to ponder – could this pandemic be the kiss of death for the kiss on the cheek?
And if so, pass me another Quarantini (or two) because that my friend is the best news so far and reason to celebrate.
Listen, I’m not a germaphobe. I’m not a cold or unfriendly person. I’m affectionate and believe in the power and importance of human touch. What I don’t need at any time, but particularly during cold and flu season, is your saliva on my cheeks.
When I moved to the Caribbean 23 years ago,I had never greeted anyone with a kiss or even contemplated it. I’d seen it done in movies, or when watching Ascot on television. The people that kissed on cheeks were ‘of a certain class’ and I certainly was not.
Then I moved to the Islands. I quickly learned that meeting a stranger, usually an expat resident, was met with an immediate duck in for the kiss on the cheek. It felt jovial and friendly and warm. And strange.
The first few times I didn’t really know what to do. Let’s be honest, 23 years in I still don’t really know what to do. Over the years I might have refined my approach a little, but there is still that awkward pause of what exactly is about to unfold. One kiss? Two? Three in some French cases? (that’s always a surprise). Is there a kiss and a hug? Just a hug? A hug and a kiss? Which cheek?
So here’s quick review of all the uncomfortable and inappropriate ways you can greet someone with a kiss – island style:
The Air Kiss: You lean in and present a cheek but the other person doesn’t lean in quite so far. An inch or two or space now exists between your faces but your lips are already in motion. So instead you pucker into the air. It usually requires you accompany it with a ‘mwah’ sound, because for some unknown reason that is less ridiculous than just silently air kissing. (I don’t make the rules) You then repeat the other side in the same fashion because… well… thats just how it works.
The Cheek Presenter: You lean in and this time the other person simply presents their cheek, then the other, for you to kiss. Now you are the only one kissing. This feels weird(er). The cheek presenter is still obliged by the unwritten rules to make the ‘mwah’ sound in to the air.
The Wet Kisser: Someone, often that you don’t know particularly well, greets you as if you are their long lost best friend, and smashes their whole face against your cheek complete with open lips that stay planted against your face for an inordinate and uncomfortable amount of time. Your cheek is left wet, maybe sticky, and you have an overwhelming urge to wipe your face with your shoulder (repeatedly) but wonder if that would look rude. Instead, you politely wait till the conversation is over, then duck into the nearest available bathroom and scrub your cheek for 36 verses of Happy Birthday.
The Unabashed Lip Kisser: You approach for some form of the above greeting and the other party puckers their lips exaggeratedly as they approach your mouth, usually with an extended ‘mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmwah’ sound similar to the airplane noise parents make when trying to get their young children to eat, warning you they are coming in for a landing. Its clear this is nothing more than a platonic peck, but still – you are 100% sure you don’t want your lips to touch theirs. Let’s be clear. I’ll lock lips with my significant other, and in some alternate and implausible reality there are a couple of TV/Theater/Movie crushes that I definitely wouldn’t turn the other cheek to. But thats where I draw the line. So, you become the ‘Cheek Presenter’ which leaves you air kissing. Which means you are now obliged to make the mwah sound. Again those are the rules.
The Oopsy Daisy: You misjudge which cheek you/they are going for and end up changing at the last minute which means that you end up landing on their lips. You worry that they think you are the Unabashed Lip Kisser. That fact that neither of you said ‘Mwah’ somehow makes it feel even more intimate and uncomfortable. You suddenly can’t make eye contact with the person.
The Kiss and Hug: You navigate the kiss on the cheek, or cheeks, so well that you feel for a moment like you have finally mastered the art of the aristocratic greeting. You have arrived. All you need now is a hat and a horse race. But as you retreat, you are knocked off balance , metaphorically and maybe even physically as they come in for a hug. You weren’t ready for this and now your arms aren’t in the right place for this imminent affection, so there is a strange moment of limbs and body parts meeting with sometimes embarrassing placements. There is flailing. You stutter, they stutter, you walk away questioning your very existence on this planet.
The Air Hug: The person makes its clear through body language that there will be no kiss – for which you are grateful – but you will hug instead. Kind of. They lean in for a hug with an abnormal amount of distance between bodies, so you have to hinge forward at the waist. You’re ready for the hug so arms are in the right place but there is so much space between the two of you, you barely touch them and do that weird ‘ever-so-lightly-pat-pat’ on their back, and they yours, and you are convinced you look like wooden figures rotating out of a cuckoo clock at the strike of the hour. You wish you were so you could just keep on rotating as the doors close behind you.
The Marmaduke: The person comes in for a hug with the speed and force of a Cat-4 Hurricane and almost bowls you over. They hold on like you are their best friend, and don’t let go. Nope, still not letting go. Still hugging. Still hugging. Still hugging. Oh wait, that is ACTUALLY how my best friend hugs. I”ll take that one, with the caveat that she is the only one allowed to hug me that way. And my significant other. And my implausible, alternate reality, crushes.
Don’t get me wrong, I have no illusion that abandoning ‘the kiss’ will give me any less angst about greeting people – especially in a supermarket. Should you wave from afar so you and they can get on with shopping? Will that look rude? Should you talk to them? For how long? Will you get stuck talking to them? For how long?
For the record, I can attest that ice cream can save a day particularly in the hot Caribbean climate… “Oh, sorry, I have to run…. ice cream” you mouth apologetically, from afar as you hold up the tub of Haagen Dazs you just quickly threw in your cart. But if a surge in personal hygiene awareness means that I can finally abstain from a salutatory smooch and be validated by pandemic science, then that’s a silver lining I can hold on to and will celebrate!
Just not with a kiss.