Kiss And Tell

11th September 2009

“Hello, how are you?”

Okay, now what do we do?

Do we shake hands? Is that too formal? Do we kiss cheeks? Is that too familiar? If we kiss, is it one side or both? Shall we just nod and smile and leave it at that?

You know what, let’s just agree to ignore the fact we haven’t done a proper introduction and talk about the weather instead. Phew, now we’re on to a subject we’re comfortable with, we can relax…

Phil Wall explores the hidden depths of a simple social situation.

Meeting and greeting should be easy. It should be especially easy if it’s someone you already know, but if you’re English it probably isn’t. Unless you’re 100% certain what to expect and what’s expected of you because it’s a friend or relative whom you’ve met hundreds of times, there’s always the potential for embarrassment, and there’s nothing we English hate more than embarrassment.

Some meetings are easier than others, of course. Two women of the same social class, whether they’ve met before, will know if they are supposed to kiss or not, and whether there will be any contact or if it’s just the ‘mwah, mwah’ air kiss. There’s still the one cheek or two dilemma, but as long as one party is decisive enough either to move away quickly after the first kiss, or go straight in for the kill on the other side, confusion can usually be avoided. But women of different backgrounds may have more trouble, because one might be used to kissing and one never does. They may end up kissing, they may not… but inevitably there will be that air of awkwardness.

English men (of any age and class) certainly don’t want to kiss each other, because – unless we were on holiday in Italy – that would be viewed by every male around as unbelievably camp. Even gay men only tend to use the cheek kiss as a greeting with heavy irony. We don’t go in for American-style bear hugs and back slapping either, so really most of us are left with the basic handshake or nothing. And when I say basic, I mean basic: we remain as far from the other person as possible, make the shake brief, and don’t go in for gripping the forearm with the spare hand or any similar extraneous activity. The problem we have is that once we’ve met someone for the first time – when everyone knows that a handshake is usually expected – it seems a bit formal and slightly pointless to do it every time. Then again, we’re never sure if anyone else feels the same. This leads to a lot of half-movements at subsequent meetings while we try and work out the other person’s intentions and hover just out of arm’s reach in case someone should think we’re trying to shake hands when really we’re not.

Men greeting women have the added problem of trying to look friendly enough without conveying any hint of sexual intention (even if there is some, it would usually be bad form to advertise it so early!). Sometimes age and family relationships make this obvious, and a formal business setting also removes any doubt about what’s needed (ie your basic no-frills handshake, preferably without the intimidating Schwarzenegger-like vice grip you give to other men), but many an Englishman has been literally caught on the back foot when introduced to a lady who moves in for an unexpected cheek touch. Nervous shuffling and mumbling are bound to follow. I think women are less nervous about being introduced to men, probably realising, at least subconsciously, that they hold more of the cards, and it’s far easier for an Englishwoman to embarrass an Englishman than vice-versa.

Often we get round the whole problem by just not introducing ourselves at all. It should be simple to approach someone at a party, tell them your name and receive theirs in return, and then, once we all know who we are, move on to topics of general interest. How often, though, have you chatted to someone at a social gathering, perhaps for hours, without knowing what they were called? It’s only as we’re leaving that we say something like “Well, very nice to meet you, I didn’t quite catch your name…” when we’ve just spent the evening revealing (and listening to) more personal details than a whole series of Blind Date.

A good host will introduce guests with a titbit of information likely to be interesting or relevant: “This is Frank, he’s a keen skier; Frank, this is John, he grew up in Switzerland.” Skiing? Switzerland? Bingo! The two strangers have an instant bond and can immediately think of harmless questions to ask, while desperately repeating the other’s name over and over in their heads, so they can casually drop it into the conversation later. If in doubt, of course, when armed with a little information, we can always fall back on talking about the weather – and there’s barely a subject that the English can’t morph into weather talk in one move: Switzerland has weather! You need particular weather for skiing! It’s that easy.

As a nation we hate – and I mean really hate – the American approach, lampooned by Harry Enfield , of stepping forward with a wide smile and loudly saying something like “Hi, I’m Ronald and this is Pammy. We’re from Badiddlyboing, Idaho.” This invasion of personal space contains far too much information and we shrink back in horror. If we can bring ourselves to respond it’s normally with a plain “Hello”, and we pointedly do not give out our name, age, occupation or any other intimate details until we have discussed at least three of: the weather, the ambience of our venue, the current political situation and the latest sporting results. Why we think that our names are classified information, I don’t know. It’s just the way we are.

We English are, in summary, not generally good at meeting people. In fact we’re probably a bit jealous of nationalities that we perceive as being socially more sophisticated than us (most other Europeans), and we don’t like the brash ‘anything goes’ American approach either – which might be less sophisticated, but, let’s face it, is far more effective than Englishness. Of course, we do have one very good reason to be wary of meeting people: at some point we’ll have to say goodbye, and that’s a whole new embarrassing can of worms…

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