K. Cooper Ray—creator of the men’s style/etiquette website Social Primer and designer of a special-edition Brooks Brothers bow-tie collection—plants one on actress Abigail Spencer (Mad Men) at a launch party for Lisa Birnbach’s book True Prep at Brooks Brothers, Beverly Hills.
I must admit it. I am an unabashed double kisser. As a transplant from the South, where cocktail-party kissing is uncommon, my first instinct was always to withdraw from incoming lips. But the longer I’ve been in L.A., the more I find myself bussing cheeks with abandon. And I have come to realize that I must control myself. At Soho House one day, I ran into a friend, his wife, their newborn and his parents. I double kissed the wife and the baby, and then went on and kissed my friend. All this in front of his bewildered parents! They looked shocked. I was mortified.
I am not alone in my affections. Fantastic-to-see-you kisses appear to be running unchecked at every social event in town. And here’s the problem: Each and every bon vivant has his own modus operandi, born of background and personal preferences. Confusion abounds over what constitutes a proper greeting here. And this confusion is not limited to new arrivals or the upwardly mobile (notice how I didn’t say social climbers?). Even the most established social butterflies are flummoxed by the myriad, often competing actions. Is it two kisses, one on each cheek? A single kiss and a hug? Make the “mwa” sound or keep it quiet?
In its earliest form, the double kiss was traditionally a privilege of the European upper classes and it had a purpose: to check if your companion was armed. And perhaps this history isn’t so far removed as we would like to believe: Only a fool would accept an offer in this town without turning it around a few times.
Today, the social kiss, in its purest form, has become a choreographed exhibition that appears animal-like in nature for there are no words exchanged: Both hands lightly grasp the target’s elbows for balance and then each turns to present right cheeks first, then left, where dry, barely-touching contact is made. Do not a sloppy kisser be. It is not looked upon kindly to leave your recipient with a drooled-on cheek.
I find comfort in the ritual of two kisses, but this is not to say that some of my closest friends agree with me. They view the double kiss as European affectation, preferring the American informality of one simple peck on the cheek. This being easy, breezy Southern California, the social embrace has evolved into an even more casual version: the kiss accompanied by a hug. But, I ask you, do we really need to hug it out with near strangers? A surprise encounter with an old friend is one thing, but just because we are Facebook friends does not mean we need to be pressed up against each other in a public place.
And then there are the air-kissers, who for reasons of intimacy, hygiene, affectation or just plain snobbery prefer sound effects to actual contact. These practitioners emit a little sound near the ear to let the receiver know they have been greeted. This sound, which resembles the honk of an exotic bird—mmmwa!—accompanies the gesture of the double kiss. The sound becomes the kiss.
Now all is well and good as long as cheek kisser meets cheek kisser and the air-kissers greet their own kind. It is when the different schools of practice mash together that the results can range from comical to injurious, whether to body or pride. When the double kissers meet the single kissers, someone is going to feel foolish. And these air-kissers, afraid of intimacy, are getting hugged and feeling violated. While this confusion leaves the parvenus in the lurch, the astute social hawk will read the situation in an instant and adjust accordingly.
Finally, there is the case of the climbers who dole out the kisses indiscriminately, often hurting their campaigns instead of advancing them. I have noticed an assumption of intimacy when the social kiss is deployed among mere acquaintances. After all, the next best thing to being photographed with a social better is to be seen kissing them hello. In this town, proximity to power equals power and a social kiss is an easy tool of ingratiation.
So where does that leave us, my social comrades? As an admitted double kisser, I declare that we keep the original. This avoids confusion and uncomfortable situations. When faced with a determined single kisser, just continue on with your motion of offering a pair. As for the kiss and the hug, I employ a stiff-armed handshake to instill decorum. If I am your very good friend, you may hug me in public, but let’s keep it to a minimum, shall we? The double kiss allows us to greet, acknowledge our relationship and then move on to more important aspects of the event, like the bar. We don’t have to get that intimate so early in the evening. Let us be restrained in our exuberance. At least that’s what I tell myself at the beginning of a night. After a couple of scotches, you should turn and run. At that point, I feel my lips will not be my own.
This is an article I contributed to the recent issue of Angeleno Magazine which you can see here. This is an expansion of a post last year which was an answer given to a reader inquiring on the ins and outs of social kissing in the ASK SP section found here. As you will read, my views have evolved a bit, or have they? This is a humor piece, after all.