Please don't kiss me unless I'm in love with you.
May 19, 2007 12:44 AM   Subscribe

Why do some Americans do the hello/goodbye kiss thing?

I understand that Europeans do it because that's how it's done in Europe. But why do some Americans do it?

It makes me feel uncomfortable. I never know when to expect it. And I generally don't want to kiss most people.

If someone goes for the hello/goodbye kiss, is the only proper response a kiss back? Or can you just hug them and pretend they didn't go for the kiss?
posted by Elmo Oxygen to Human Relations (34 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
America is the melting pot so you are going to see the traditions of all sorts of people adopted and transformed by others. In some senses you are seeing people doing it because they ancestors did it and their ancestors came from Europe. In other cases you are seeing people do it because they've adopted something that they consider cool, neat, hip, special, or unique, etc.).
posted by mmascolino at 12:59 AM on May 19, 2007

Not just the Europeans:

"Between people of close acquaintance, a kiss, often reciprocal, is offered as a greeting or farewell. This kind of kiss is typically made by brief contact of puckered lips to the skin of the cheek or no contact at all, and merely performed in the air near the cheek with the cheeks touching. Such kissing is a common greeting in European and Latin American countries between a man and a woman or between two women but also by two men in part of the Middle East and parts of Europe and Latin America."^

I wonder if it happened in the past in the States, but then stopped after being seen as some sort of foreign affectation? (This is total speculation based on nothing.)
posted by mdonley at 1:02 AM on May 19, 2007

You did see the Seinfeld episode, and thus, know the ramifications of refusing the hello kiss, did you not?

In all seriousness, it wasn't a hello kiss, but at a relative's wedding, my aunt kissed me on the lips and that totally freaked me out. (I am a girl, and it was the way a mother might kiss her small child on the lips.) I was uncomfortable around her for a while, but she never did it again.

I do have a different aunt and my grandma who both do the kiss on the cheek hello, and I don't really like it, but it's at the same time as a hug and so I just hug back and ignore the kiss. So yeah, I'd say just hug.
posted by IndigoRain at 1:17 AM on May 19, 2007

I’m a Quebecer and I kiss hello, politely, on the cheek.

No, please don’t hug me! I hate that. It feels as if I’m being comforted on the death of my father or something. I just want to say hello. A kiss is a nice, civilised way to say hello, retains some physical distance while conveying warmth. Unlike the American mawkish groping hugs. Eeew.

I have American relatives but I’ve never been able to get used to their hugs. I try to get them to accept kisses, and that seems to go over well. They’re a little surprised, but it’s fun and special, so it works anyway.

Anyway, my point is that just because you’re comfortable hugging everyone doesn’t mean that they appreciate it. So a little tolerance. If someone is too quick for me and has grasped me in a hug before I can redirect to a kiss, I smile and hug back. It wouldn’t hurt you to learn to cope with the suprise of a kiss, even if you don’t like it.

Or maybe just hang back and wave from across the room - that way nobody has their space invaded in an unpleasant way.
posted by kika at 1:34 AM on May 19, 2007

I'm from Miami, where the normal thing to do (at least among Hispanics) is to cheek-kiss and hug everyone of the opposite sex who is presented to us as a friend in greeting and goodbye.

When I moved a little further north to go to college, at the beginning it was awkward not giving my new female friends that kiss. It took me a second to realize that not everybody did it. I eventually settled on an handshake or wave (totally weird, still).

I kind of like the cheek kiss. To me, it's just a part of letting the other person know that you're friendly.
posted by Inigo Jones at 1:35 AM on May 19, 2007

My family are kissers, so I've always done it. I prefer it to hugging -- I don't really like people touching me like, and it seems all gropey and too-much-contact-y, and some people hug and just don't seem to know when to let go, so they keep touching you, and you have an entire awkward conversation while someone brackets you with their arms, and -- ew. No.

Kisses have an immediate release attached to them, so I kiss the huggers, too, because after that they can't keep hugging me without appearing improper. That said, I don't care if people don't kiss back. I do it mostly out of habit; if someone were obviously uncomfortable and I noticed before I got that close, I would either find another way to fend off the hugging or just deal with being uncomfortable.
posted by meghanmiller at 2:12 AM on May 19, 2007

kika: "It wouldn’t hurt you to learn to cope with the suprise of a kiss, even if you don’t like it. "

I agree.

This question is so weird to me -- I would never be offended by a hug or a kiss on the cheek (or both cheeks). It's sad to think that when I think I am expressing genuine affection, someone could be cringing.
posted by loiseau at 4:45 AM on May 19, 2007 [3 favorites]

If it makes you uncomfortable just do the air kiss. I suggest you just get over it or you will end up insulting a lot of people in your life. You certainly don't have to offer it up, but when it is don't freak out or lots of people will think either that you don't really like them or your'e uptight. Just go with the flow. I do understand where you are coming from; some people just grow up in an environment where this doesn't happen and where people are touchy about their personal space, including no close talking. Since there are so many different styles on this at least getting comfortable with them will provide social benefits for you.
posted by caddis at 5:06 AM on May 19, 2007

I would never be offended by a hug or a kiss on the cheek (or both cheeks). It's sad to think that when I think I am expressing genuine affection, someone could be cringing.

From the other side, it's just that it's kind of awkward for a stranger or acquaintance you just met to do it. I do the cheek kiss thing with pretty much family only so when someone is introduced to me and leans in, it seems weird since I don't know them at all.

Funnier still is when people can sense I'm not into it and someone gets introduced to three people I might be standing with, and maybe one of them does the cheek kiss and I end up with a handshake (which is fine by me).

Part of me feels like as an adult, I'm supposed to be comfortable doing the cheek kiss with strange women, but the other part of me is weirded out because it's traditionally a family thing for me.
posted by mathowie at 5:25 AM on May 19, 2007

When i lived in France, people would try this all the time. the important thing is to start recognizing the warning signs, they step forward, and lean into your personal space, it's at this point that you either:
  • firmly extend your hand for a good handshake, or
  • take a step back, making it impossible to land the kiss.

    No one ever got offended, as many people are not comfortable with kissing, even in Europe.

  • posted by blue_beetle at 5:37 AM on May 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

    This question is so weird to me -- I would never be offended by a hug or a kiss on the cheek (or both cheeks). It's sad to think that when I think I am expressing genuine affection, someone could be cringing.

    I would not be offended, but I would cringe (but not visibly, I don't want to make people feel bad about trying to be friendly). I'm just not used to strangers touching me or getting so close. If it's a friend or someone I know already, I'm okay with it. But shaking hands is intimate enough for me when meeting people for the first time.

    I think it's same thing as having different ideas about the size of ones personal space. Mine is propably quite big compared to many other people. I don't think badly of people who do the the kiss or hug greeting, but I only like it from people I already know. Mostly I just try to be proactive and go for the handshake in a very obvious way. (Maybe you should know I'm a European. I'm from the north of Europe and the culture here is quite different from the continental and southern Europe. So don't expect kisses from every European you meet)

    If someone goes for the hello/goodbye kiss, is the only proper response a kiss back? Or can you just hug them and pretend they didn't go for the kiss?

    So, to actually answer the question. Don't go for the hug unless the other person is already hugging you. If a kiss is already in it's way accept it graciously, smile and say hello. I don't think you have to kiss back if it makes you very uncomfortable, but otherwise go with the flow and smile/be friendly about if. Or you can do the air kiss thing caddis suggested. If the greeting procol is still in it's early stages, you can take control and go for the handshake or some other form of greeting you prefer.
    posted by severiina at 5:50 AM on May 19, 2007

    The simplest solution is probably using blue_beetle's suggestion to avoid the entire kissing situation or semi-avoid the situation with this cunning plan:
    just make a smacking sound with your lips while the other person kisses you. You "kiss back", so you avoid awkwardness or offending people, but actually it's more of a brushing of cheeks while making the kiss sound. And the person was kissing you anyway, so you're off the hook just by making a sound!

    It solves the problem immediately without you having to deflect the kiss and hug them. It's the easiest, most neutral reaction with the least amount of touching or possibility for embarrassment.

    As is apparent from the reactions above, there are people who are as uncomfortable about hugs as you are about kisses, so substituting them wouldn't be an ideal solution. Of course, if you really feel this uncomfortable, it's perfectly acceptable for you to deflect the kisses and hug them, but imagine people who don't like hugs and do the same: deflect them and start kissing you, it's a lose-lose situation with lots of uncomfortable moves.

    FWIW, I'm European and I only kiss my family (one kiss), but not my family members of the same generation (brother, nieces, cousins). When we're celebrating, e.g. a birthday, everybody gets one kiss, the celebrated person 3 kisses, but only in the region where my mother's family lives. The other part of the family only kisses twice to congratulate someone.
    In my hometown it was a custom to kiss your friends on arriving and leaving, also only once. In all these cases there's the general rule of women kiss women, men kiss women, but men shake other men's hands.

    Where I live now (this is still all in the same country!) it's not a custom to kiss friends and to be honest, I like this best. We just say hello to each other. It's the easiest solution and causes the least embarrassment. However, a foreign friend of a friend has the habit of hugging me and I find that extremely uncomfortable, not in the least because I hardly know this person and I find hugging an intimate thing. All this just to say that it isn't that uniform in Europe either.

    posted by lioness at 6:22 AM on May 19, 2007

    mmascolino has it right. The word "american" means very little.

    Almost everyone you see came from a far away place only a few generations ago. The aboriginal americans thought shaking hands was hilarious. Many asians would bow, and the Inuit might rub noses.

    The world has a lot of cultures, and you shouldn't expect uniformity in a world where you can travel to the most remote place in less time than it would take to read a book.
    posted by cmiller at 7:07 AM on May 19, 2007

    I'm American of mostly Irish/German ancestry, and this isn't how it's done in my family or circle of friends. Occasionally I'll run into someone who is overly affectionate, and if I expect to have regular contact with them, I just let them know that "I'm a little weird about my personal space." In other words, "it's not you, it's me." I'd rather have them think I'm a little strange than be kissed and hugged when I don't want to be.
    posted by desjardins at 7:56 AM on May 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

    I would prefer the peck-peck to all the hugging that goes on on the west coast.
    posted by everichon at 8:58 AM on May 19, 2007

    I did not come from a huggy family so for my first 17 years or so I wasn't very comfortable with physical interaction. I really had to teach myself how to relax with it & now I'm pretty damn huggy by nature.

    I have a lot of European friends so the kissing stuff doesn't even register with me, I'm cool with all of it. Bear hug, two kisses, three kisses, whatever. I'll roll with it & appreciate it. But when I flash back to the former version of myself I think about how she would've handled huggy/kissy people. And she felt supremely awkward & uncomfortable with it. So I can DEFINITELY see how it makes some people feel strange. I'm just thankful that I'm not one of those people anymore.
    posted by miss lynnster at 10:07 AM on May 19, 2007

    I have family in Quebec that I only see 3x a year tops, and they recently (in the last 3 years or so?) picked it up, and I'm still not used to it, but only because I still don't see it coming. I just kind of go through the motions and follow their lead.
    posted by lisawin at 11:17 AM on May 19, 2007

    I'm American and the kiss greeting has always seemed perfectly normal to me. I greet more women this way than I do with a handshake; the hug would be the weirder greeting to me. But all of these are just arbitrary preferences, I guess people are just more comfortable with whatever they're used to.
    posted by lackutrol at 1:10 PM on May 19, 2007

    I understand that Europeans do it because that's how it's done in Europe.

    Some Americans do it because that's how it's done by some Americans.
    posted by event at 1:14 PM on May 19, 2007

    I think I kiss (the (facial) cheek) of most of my female friends hello, though only a few of ones I have met through business. And I would not kiss a mere acquaintance. My impression is that this is standard in NYC, at least among my set. We kiss because its nice.
    posted by shothotbot at 1:26 PM on May 19, 2007

    Like everichon, when we're talking about friends/acquaintances/random attractive people, I prefer check kissing to big hugs. But I don't kiss everyone.
    posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 1:33 PM on May 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

    Here in Ottawa (Ont) I tend to find a mix. A fair number of people do the double kiss on the cheek thing, I think because of the impact of Quebeker culture, but not everyone.

    It's really barely a kiss, even. Lips hardly touch your cheek.

    But it still took me a long time to get used to it. Now I just expect it and sometimes even initiate it.

    But I wouldn't expect to run into it anywhere but here an in Quebec.
    posted by aclevername at 1:53 PM on May 19, 2007

    there is nothing that "americans do". americans are every nationality..
    posted by Quarter Pincher at 2:18 PM on May 19, 2007

    I think a more accurate description would be to say that some Americans do it, and some don't.

    Growing up Virginia, I never encountered any greetings or farewells which involved kissing, short of a grandmother or mother kissing a grandson/son/grandaughter/daughter farewell. It was entirely handshaking with strangers and hugs and/or handshakes with family and friends. Spent nineteen years in Virginia. Spent a year and a half in Southern California, pretty much the same thing. Then three years in Missouri, never saw a single kiss greeting/farewell, and another three in Arkansas with the same result.

    My own impression with folks adopting the practice has been to attempt to cultivate a more metropolitan (perhaps, more European) behavior. So, I believe those Americans who do it, do it for this, or because its a cultural legacy from immigrating to the country.
    posted by Atreides at 3:10 PM on May 19, 2007

    New England WASP/DAR family with long roots, Scottish, Welsh, and English ancestry. My family both hugs and cheek kisses (one cheek only), greeting and farewell.

    and now I'm wondering if they do it because I can't stand it.
    posted by vers at 6:45 PM on May 19, 2007

    Hmm, I prefer hugging to kissing. I'm actually puzzled that so many people seem to think a kiss on the cheek is less intimate than a hug, because I think it's much, much more intimate. Furthermore, I can't really find a way to do a kiss without doing at least a partial hug, which feels even more awkward. I'll take a hug over a kiss any day.

    Basically, what all of this discussion proves is that, with the breaking down of geographical and cultural boundaries, there are no more local consensuses about what is proper and appropriate and allowable. All you can do is what makes you comfortable and what you think will make the people you're with comfortable.

    I think it's perfectly okay not to reciprocate a kiss so long as you greet the person warmly. If I can't escape the kiss, I try for the least pretentious air kiss I can muster. But I also don't hug people who don't initiate that, because I know some people prefer not to hug, so I wouldn't try to substitute a hug for a kiss. Follow the other person's lead, but don't feel the need to put lips to skin if you don't want to.
    posted by decathecting at 7:09 PM on May 19, 2007

    Best answer: In my family and with close friends, the common close greeting of choice is direct, close-range eye contact, held for 30 seconds to a minute (sometimes over a handshake or while holding each other's arms), while you study the other person's face for changes and general condition. This freaks a lot of strangers out completely, as in many cultures, any one staring you in the eye from 18 inches to two feet away for a solid minute, even if they are smiling at you, is extremely frightening. But there's no lying about how you've been, when you've been greeted like that, and it sets an expectation of frankness and openness, that I like.

    I think because of this greeting ritual, nobody ever really tries to kiss me on first meeting, unless it's a pre-arranged thing between us (mostly old girl friends, and maybe my sister, who does the Southern American woman's cheek kiss bit, reflexively). But even she knows that our real family greeting is the eye contact thing, even though I don't think she does it with any one but me, any more.

    Cross culturally, that kind of greeting is way too personal for meetings with people of many cultures, even if you've known them a long time. The handshake at a distance of 1 meter, with downcast eyes, is the common substitute, but many Americans, in particular, are terrible at handshakes. But as bad as they are, and even considering the thousands of limp fingered, limp wristed, diffident, ineffective, weak, hesitant, clammy, greasy, awful American handshakes I've encountered in a long life, I'd still generally rather shake hands, than do the cheek kiss bit.

    And I think people who try to insist on hugging me at first meeting are trying to find my piece. So my rule is that they can hug me, after they meet my gaze at 18 inches for a full minute. Most of 'em never even make it 10 seconds. Those that do are welcome to partially frisk me, in exchange for being waist, chest and backed frisked themselves. Those that don't, can keep on guessing, as far as I'm concerned.
    posted by paulsc at 9:08 PM on May 19, 2007

    If the greeting procol is still in it's early stages, you can take control and go for the handshake or some other form of greeting you prefer.

    Well, if you come to one of my family gatherings, they will take your outstretched hand and use it to pull you into the full bear hug, then a kiss, one, maybe two cheeks. If they like you they then step back and stare you up, if you are smart you leap back into the hug, kiss both cheeks, oy vay. You are accepted now. Oooh, there are a lot of family members meeting. Repeat liberally. Just face it. Your personal space is toast, but, this bonding hug thing, it is a little deeper than a handshake.
    posted by caddis at 10:31 PM on May 19, 2007

    Near as I can tell my maiden aunt Mae gave me a scorching case of oral herpes Simplex 1 when I was four. (scratchy kisses I remember). many painful chancre sore oral ulcerations occurred from the initial outbreak. My parents have photos of my twin brother and I suffering with our mouths hanging open that summer from the intense pain. They still think it was cute.
    Type II, no.
    posted by longsleeves at 10:40 PM on May 19, 2007

    Response by poster: What a fascinating thread. I've always thought of the cheek kiss as being more intimate then a hug. Also, as someone upthread mentioned, I can't imagine how you would manage the cheek kiss without the hug.

    But, obviously, not everyone feels this way.

    I usually shake hands with men. I hug women, but only if they're already friends of mine or if we've just had a particularly warm conversation. Otherwise they get the handshake hello and a smile goodbye. The air kiss is a bit pretentious, but it works in a jam if someone blindsides me with the unexpected cheek kiss. I almost never return a cheek kiss, but mostly because I'm not expecting it.

    I still can't get over the fact that some people feel that a kiss is less intimate then a hug. But hey, I guess that's just the way they roll.
    posted by Elmo Oxygen at 12:03 AM on May 20, 2007


    When i lived in France, people would try this all the time. [snip]
    - firmly extend your hand for a good handshake, or
    - take a step back, making it impossible to land the kiss.
    No one ever got offended, as many people are not comfortable with kissing, even in Europe.

    I live in France, and that seems quite shoking to me. While I wouldn't feel actually offended by it, it would put a real distance between us, a gaping cultural divide, and it would say a lot about your inability to adapt to the local customs :)

    When I'm in the south of France and I forget to give 3 kisses in stead of 2 (like it's done up north) I feel like I've made a real blunder, so I can't imagine rejecting a kiss altogether.

    many people are not comfortable with kissing, even in Europe.
    I have never met anyone who isn't comfortable kissing, in Europe.
    posted by androse at 5:25 AM on May 20, 2007

    Belgian-style is 3 kisses. But my father-in-law just does the handshake with me, which is fine. I'm American, and find it odd to kiss straight males. With friends, it is typical only with the opposite gender (I'd imagine the local gay folk probably kiss eachother more. Our Belgian friends are all straight people my partner has known for years.

    For a bunch of us Americans, the hugging thing was something cultivated in the 70's, in response and defense of the cold remoteness that was the social norm previously. Hugs are good for people, generally speaking. They aren't just for kids anymore.
    posted by Goofyy at 10:53 AM on May 20, 2007

    American here. The kissing (or even the "air kiss") isn't the norm in the States, so, yes, it is unusual. Personally, I think it's kind of cool, but I feel awkward when someone does it basically because it's always a surprise and I never know how to recriprocate (left? right? two kisses? three? air kiss or actual contact?) I have European and Middle East friends who do the kiss thing, and that's to be expected, but between Americans it seems weird.

    I prefer the standard American handshake, and if you are good friends, a hug. Hugs can be awkward as well, but at least they don't require the precision of kisses.

    In Japan, hugs are rare and kisses are out of the question. Things are changing a bit, though, with the younger generation. I'll see young girls meeting on the street, obviously excited to see each other, and they do this half-hearted hug, just kind of grabbing each other's arms, more like a grope. It's like they want to hug, Western-style, but social norms are holding them back. In fifty years I think the hug will be commonplace here.

    Sorry...what was the question? Hope this helps!
    posted by zardoz at 12:48 AM on May 21, 2007

    I didn't realize so many people were anti-hug. I much prefer hugging to cheek-kissing.

    Something that might be helpful is to either extend a hand quickly or to cross your arms and nodding when meeting someone. That communicates your lack of interest in kissing/hugging pretty clearly to all but the most oblivious.
    posted by callmejay at 11:58 AM on May 21, 2007

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