Who Changes the Kissing Rules?

A female friend who I hadn’t seen in several months and I greeted each other yesterday with the usual hug and one-cheek kiss. If I had done this in 1970 I would have been looked on as really weird, or I might even have been slapped.

The social norm on kissing has changed in the U.S.; and the norm elsewhere is different: In much of Europe the two-cheek greeting between friends of the opposite sex is standard.

On my first return trip to the Netherlands, I assumed that two-cheek kissing was the norm there. That nearly cost me a broken nose, as the norm there is now the three-cheek greeting kiss. My Dutch friend tells me that the norm changed in the 1980′s or so.

Why do norms change? Does some highly visible individual start the new custom? Do we adopt it from elsewhere (which can’t explain the Dutch three-cheek kiss), so that we Americans might soon be doing an Arab or Latin male-to-male hug/kiss? Given the importance of social norms in conditioning market transactions, it would be good to know where these norms come from and why they change.

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  1. Anne says:

    Perhaps the Dutch learned the 3 kiss from the Portugese? I’ve seen some Lisboans take 10 minutes to say hello properly to all of their friends.

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  2. carol says:

    Three cheek kissing? Er, and the third cheek is….? Is that how you nearly broke your nose?

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  3. AaronS says:

    Some think that television/movies simply reflect society and do not influence it, but we can simply look at tee-shirt sales after a certain Clark Gable film to know that stars also influence us–sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, sometimes in some amoral manner.

    Fifteen years ago, I though skinny ties were the height of the well-dressed man–especially coming off of those fat ties of the 1970s. But over time, I noticed that I didn’t feel quite as well-dressed when I wore those thin ties. Something wasn’t quite right.

    Now I realize that catalogs, television shows, interviews with famous (well-dressed) people, and the such, had an influence on my preferences. I know prefer the latest fashion in ties.

    The same with social custom. If we see it played out enough on television–if we see the best and brightest of Hollywood kissing each other on the cheek, etc.–we naturally are influenced to some degree.

    Well, I can’t help but think that seeing a triple-cheek-kiss displayed a number of times by a variety of infuential people would serve to cause us to adopt that ourselves.

    Now, the question is who got the Hollywood stars to move from the twice-kiss to the thrice kiss? That is, who is the First Mover (I am not speaking philosophically–it’s not God).

    I’m betting there are people who influence the stars themselves. Perhaps some intelligensia or artiste and the stars adopt it and publish it ot the world.

    The artists perhaps do it just to do something different from what everyone else is doing. Or perhaps, for that matter, they simply miscounted (in a fog of drug-induced pleasure, as you know) the number of kisses, mistakenly planted three instead of two…and there you go.

    And maybe the very FIRST kiss, instead of the handshake, was because some drunken artist (they must be drunken, you know, to truly be an artist) had the hots for someone and tried to score an easy kiss, did so, and influenced the world.

    Sort of “Tipping Point” stuff, really.

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  4. Witty Nickname says:

    3 cheeks? We only have two chee… oh, I get it, this is like what I do with my manager.

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  5. Christophe says:

    As a guy from Belgium I can add this:

    The kissing rules here differ every few kilometres, litterally. And even then, they tend to differ a little from person to person.

    The most standard in my crowd is men greeting eachother with a handshake and men meeting women with 1 kiss and vice versa.

    If it’s been a long time since we’ve seen eachother it’s 3 kisses for the women (also on birthdays and such), and occassionaly a hug for the men depending on how close you are with them.

    2 kisses never happen as far as I know.

    However, some male friends of mine give eachother a kiss on the cheek as well when greeting eachother. I personally never picked that up, and they know that I’m not into it ;) But I don’t mind other people doing it, obviously.

    However, a few cities away nearly all men kiss eachother on the cheek when they meet. It’s a strange phenomenon indeed.

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  6. Bobby G says:

    I traveled in France for two months this summer, and the 3-kiss there is awkward… Either two kisses, one on each cheek, or four, right-left-right-left. When I asked some of my French friends about the procedure, they appeared to be surprised… as if thinking about the logistics behind such an everyday act was unusual for them.

    From what I could see, hugs are more intimate gestures than kisses on the cheeks. I can see where they’re coming from; hugs involve more overall touching, while kisses on the cheek, though involving the mouth, can be limited to little or no contact at all (the “air” kiss). In America, the kiss, even on the cheek, is a very intimate gesture.

    As for how they start and why they change, I’m not sure any individual is responsible for social norms. I tend to think of it like a rapidly evolving organism. Consider vulgarity… 50 years ago, even in the US, the list of words considered vulgar and highly offensive was completely different from today’s list. How did that change? What was responsible? When did it change? All these questions are very difficult to answer with likely no one correct response.

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  7. PB says:

    Carol — it’s easy to “almost” break your nose when you aren’t prepared for a third kiss because it’s easy to accidentally slam your face into the other person’s.

    Or, in some parts of France you go right-left-right and in other parts, left-right-left. So, if your friend goes right and you go left, things could get awkward.

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  8. kathy says:

    Could it be the result of increased travel? I know I was not as open to greeting someone with a kiss until I did it for four months in Chile – now it’s comfortable (although not entirely comfortable in the States).

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