Right cheek or left? Actual or simulated contact? Single or double? In all its iterations, the social kiss is spreading across the U.S. like pollen in spring — warmly welcomed by some; dodged like an allergen by others.
"It's become such an affectation, with the proliferation of all these reality shows," says socialprimer.com blogger K. Cooper Ray, who has lived in New York, Milan, Los Angeles and now Charleston, S.C., where social kissing is not customary.
Michael Callahan has seen his share of social smooching as deputy editor at Town & Country magazine. He comes out in favor of it despite the often-clumsy execution. "I would argue in the scheme of things that it is better to vote for more warmth and conviviality than less," he said.
Our experts offer novices some best practices to avoid the worst-case scenario: meeting in the middle of a social kiss. "Lip to lip, a lot of people would sooner fall through the floor," Post said.
Degree of difficulty: High and mighty! (The cost if flubbed: social ruin!)
Know where you are
In most American cities, if administered at all, a social kiss typically consists of a single, right cheek to right cheek. Europeans and New Yorkers often double kiss, first right cheek, then left. The double is Ray's preference, but he reserves it for actual friends, male and female, except in the South. "Social kissing a Southern man? It just would not happen ever, ever, ever, ever," he said. In Los Angeles, the social kiss is employed even in business, man to man — "the Hollywood executive kind of thing," Ray observes. It's also a tool for social climbers there, where "proximity to power equals power, and a social kiss is an easy tool of ingratiation."
Avoid undue force.
Ray suggests that "both hands lightly grasp the target's elbows for balance and then each turns to present right cheeks first, then left, where dry, glancing contact is made" — via a quick twist of the mouth. (A London paper just teased Naomi Campbell for an ungainly approach in an air kiss, with the caption, "Come here, you!") Post finds no fault in pressing just cheeks, without lip-to-cheek contact. All three experts view a lean-in with zero contact as pretentious, and agree that a sloppy, wet kiss is equally offensive.
Sound or silence?
Post says her godmother often sends a "mwah" air kiss from across the kitchen if she's elbow deep in food prep when Post arrives. Post likes that just fine. Ray dislikes the stereotypical nose-in-the-air "mwah-mwah." Callahan also prefers no sound effects.
When dealing with a European, turn the other cheek for a second kiss. In America, if you're brazen enough to initiate a double, Ray suggests whispering "so good to see you" or "how are you" to dissipate any awkwardness. Some skip a second kiss and hug it out instead, which Ray often finds falsely intimate, reminiscent of Ari on the HBO show "Entourage." Post likes a single kiss followed by an upper-body hug. Follow your partner's cues.
The nod. A smile and nod in greeting is always correct, K. Cooper Ray said.
A handshake is almost always appropriate, Anna Post said.
The hug. In U.S. cities, the new norm seems to be a handshake or nod upon introduction, then, at the end of the social encounter, an upper-body hug or single social kiss if you have conversed at some length, Michael Callahan said.