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.


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.


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


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.


Witty Nickname

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


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.

Bobby G

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.



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.


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).


This is not an answer - but I would recommend Connie Willis' novel Bellwether as a very good exploratiion of the issue.

Thomas B.

As a New Yorker I'm told by my LA friends that they can always pick us out at a party because we cheek-kiss our greetings. A friend of mine from Chicago who lives in NY will always "midwest-hug" me at the start of a night and we "NY kiss" when we part ways.

It differs even regionally within The States.


My late mother used to complain that people she barely knew were now hugging her and kissing her. She once said of a fellow "He's a very nice man but I avoid him because he always hugs and kisses me." She (born in 1916) much preferred a handshake, with outstretched arm and a spoken "How do you do?" or "Hello". She viewed the hugs and kisses as a bit...untoward.

joe k

A peck on the cheek and a light hug between men and women friends is dandy. But multiple lip-plantings and neck-swivelings, and this between men, too? Yikes, I'm on my way to Flyoverland if it comes to that!

Lynn McKenzie

Well, I'm from the Midwest, and if you kiss me, you WILL get slapped.


In France, where I live, the 2 kisses is the norm in Paris and main big cities. 3 kisses can be observed mostly in country side. I would say too, that it depends on your social background: 2 kisses is perceived as more distinguished than 3...I am 34 and it has not changed for a very long time...


OH to NJ

When I moved from Ohio to New Jersey I was introduced to the kiss on the cheek greeting. I had not grown up with this form of greeting, usually a hug and only from relatives or close friends. Having studied French, I easily adjusted. What really threw me off was the fact that I work with alumni at a college and as some of the alumni got to know me, they started to kiss me on the cheek. It took a while to get used to.

igor garcia

How about the one-cheek kiss when two MEN meet each other in Buenos Aires, Argentina? It took me some time to get used to it when I was there in 2007 (I am from Brazil), but the biggest problem was to get used NOT to do that when I returned back to Brazil, otherwise people would look on me strange.
All airports should have signs with the local kissing policy!!! LOL


I lived in NY for a long time and picked up the one kiss greeting. When I moved back to the midwest and unthinkingly employed it with other midwesterners, they were quite taken aback. It's terrible to be be taken for a pervert by simply offering a quick cheek kiss!


It's a science in France...or at least it used to be..
Parisians used to kiss 4 times, North 3, South 2 or South 3, North 2. Somehow lately though, they all go for 1 kiss, maybe as a way to unify and make it easier.


I have to agree with Bev in comment #11. I don't kiss or hug someone unless it's a family member or my boyfriend. I'm one of those Americans who prefers to err on the side of assuming a larger personal space. It feels strange when someone I don't know well wants to engage in physical contact beyond a handshake.

Mark Brinda

I have been using a four cheek kiss for a year or so now on occasions when other americans seem to be a little too excited about doing the kiss hello thing. it's also fun with euros who are excited doing a double kiss with an american.