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.

Kathleen Mazzocco

Sounds like an issue for Malcolm Gladwell to tackle. He can name his next book "Smooch."


@3 With respect to Clark Gable in It Happened One Night and T-Shirt sales, the "First Mover," or cause of him not wearing an undershirt was simply that the "Walls of Jericho" scene would have taken too long for him to get undressed. So instead of an artiste authoring a new style, we simply have a cultural phenomenon essentially manifesting by accident.

Kids used to roll up their right pant leg to avoid getting the fabric caught in the gears of their bicycle. For some reason wearing pants this way caught on as a bizarre fad for the mainstream suburban wannabe-gangster set. Granted that some kids probably hid money or little baggies of drugs in the rolled fabric, it is more likely that the cause of the phenomenon had much more in common with the Clark Gable example.

When we see someone or multiple persons dressing or behaving in a non-traditional manner with confidence, we tend to admire them and even mimic them. When Gable takes his shirt off he does it as if it is totally normal (all the while charming the lovely Claudette Colbert). Similarly, when a kid who has been riding their bike to get where they are going then gets off his bike without adjusting his rolled up pant leg, he continues to behave as though everything is normal (and perhaps even come off as a respectable tough guy).

New customs come from weird places but their occurence is not random, just usually surprising.


Brian D.

I think it's an over generalization to say that the US norm has changed. It may have in urban areas like NYC, but I doubt that it has changed in less urban regions like the Southeast (where I am from).


A related social change is the fist bump among young males. My friends used to shake my hand, and suddenly one day the handshakes became fist bumps. I tried to resist it, but the awkwardness that resulted from the fist/hand mismatch eventually overcame me.

I'm sure it's another black culture things adopted by young white males, but it just came out of nowhere all at once. I've always been fascinated by how quickly it changed.


My mother's family is from Argentina, and we usually do one-cheek air kisses. Of course, my family is large enough that we could very well have a social standard all to our own. (:

I didn't really see the men do that amongst each other, though, in all honesty.


Last night I greeted a friend's girlfriend with the cheek kiss, and she seemed sort of weirded out over it. I felt like such a creep afterwards. When I went to say goodnight, I just offered a handshake as she awkwardly went for the cheek kiss.

Just a clumsy night all around.


Miss Manners on the topic: "...A gentleman must, in these circumstances, take what is offered. If it is a hand, shake it. If it is a cheek, kiss it. If it is a pair of lips, kiss it. If it keeps reappearing, it must be rekissed."


In Mexico we do 1 kiss on the cheek (girls-girls, boys-girls), and it is fairly common for guys to kiss and hug their elders (male or female).

But it's true, even in the US it varies. I've learned to keep a distance with my southern friends while hugging and kissing my NE friends.

In German, where I live right now, 1 or 2 kiss is the norm depending on the person - I've met some people from Belgium and the Netherlands that do the 3 kiss thing too, so.. yes, I guess it's all very confusing... but fun, right?

And that said, this is only with friends - I would never think of kissing at the workplace!


Kathy - I had the exact same experience. After living in Chile about fifteen years ago, shaking hands and kissing cheeks got much more comfortable. I was a little ahead of the times in the US when I came back; it seems standard now.


As a 20something white male who moves in very politically-liberal circles, I've noticed a *huge* jump in the amount of fist-bumping after the Obama "Terrorist fist jab" incident. It went from "not unheard of" to "moderately common."


@ Aaron (#3)

I'm not sure the Clark Gable thing is true - see http://www.snopes.com/movies/actors/gable1.asp. But I think you are right about fashion being influenced by television. I was at a onference a few months ago and because the room was so big, the speakers were telecast onto huge screens at the sides of the room in case you couldn't see well. One of the speakers was wearing a suit that was perfectly ordinary, but it had a herringbone pattern in it. The suit was totally distorted on the screens - basically looked like a moire pattern. This happens anytime herringbone is filmed digitally, since the lines don't correspond to the horizontal and vertical lines of a tv/monitor.

Anyway, it got me thinking. Herringbone used to be relatively common in men's suits, but you don't really see it anymore. How much of that is because it is never used on TV? I think a lot.


Having lived a substantial amount of time both in the Midwest and overseas, and witnessing first-hand how infrequent post-restroom hand washing seems to be here, I have to say I think I'd rather a kiss a guy than shake hands. For what it's worth.



I notice there were not any comments from the Brits - not the most touchy feely nation in the world.

I am 37 man and have noticed a change over the years and between generations.

My fathers generation just about manage handshakes but more often than not a wave or a jolly good hello, perhaps a pat on the back.

My own generation is highly confused in social situations because everyone seems to have a different way of greeting.

Generally speaking you would definitely not kiss any woman whom you had just met. If you want to be formal for a man probably a handshake but not necessarily. But from there it gets complicated. If the woman is a more touchy feely kind of girl every now and then she might expect perhaps a kiss or hug on leaving arriving. Its difficult to tell but its a bit like dancing - you have to be quick on your feet.

Blokes again depending on how touchy feely they are would shake hands but now the rules are changing where hugs are sometimes expected.

Personally I think the government should create some kind of ministry of silly walks, handshake and kissing department to help us lot out.



this is called zeitgeist

Juan C. Camus

Here in Chile there is also a change happening. The cheek-kiss is an old habit, which usually surprise foreigners.

The current difference is that this habit is expanding to male youngsters. I think it is a habit inherited from soccer players who do that when they replace somebody on the field during a match.


I just wish there was a good Idiot's guide to physical greeting. I can barely shake hands without doing something wrong (I go for the traditional "2 firm pumps" shake that I learned in receiving lines for the military)


President Elect Obama has put me in charge of all norms for public affection and I say all of us should be kissing on the mouth.



I can never tell if a greeting will be a two, three, or four kiss greeting. I just try to read the other person's body language and follow suit.


@ -P

I coach youth gymnastics with some friends, and we began instituting the "fist bump" with our kids a few years ago specifically for hygienic reasons. We liked ending practice with a handshake, but children don't take the best care to keep their hands clean, and we found it better for our health if we eliminated the "hand" portion and switched to knuckles.


Musicians give each other a two-step handshake pretty much everywhere I've traveled - sometimes with a bro-hug added. I wonder where and when this originated as well.