XOXO – To kiss or not to kiss

in Features

Most of us do it. Cheek kissing or air kissing has become a commonplace part of society in most countries, although there are still some cultures where kissing is not an acceptable practice. Whether once, twice, or even more, kissing has become a routine part of greeting someone – however well we know them.

Now, in the age of coronavirus, friendly kissing poses a dilemma for many of us and this may well lead to a change in our behaviour in the future with kissing becoming taboo. There was a time when a handshake was the more usual greeting, especially in the UK, and that air kissing was thought to be reserved for the more gregarious Mediterranean countries, or for those in professions such as fashion or in the theatre where exuberant behaviour had become de rigueur.

So is kissing a learned, cultural behaviour, or is it intuitive? The scientific study of kissing is called philematology (philos in ancient Greek means earthly love) and if you think about it, kissing is really quite a strange thing to do. Pressing our lips against another person’s lips and, in some cases, swapping saliva, sounds bizarre. There is evidence that a kiss was a way for early humans to subconsciously sniff each other out and that cavemen licked each other’s cheeks to obtain salt. There is another theory that kissing came from the practice of kiss-feeding based on birds feeding worms to their hatchlings and human mothers who fed children their chewed up food.

Romantic kissing can be traced back 3,500 years to Hindu Vedic Sanskrit texts. In these texts, kissing is described as inhaling each other’s’ souls. The Kama Sutra, written in the 6th century A.D., describes several different types of kissing and some anthropologists who believe that kissing is a learned behaviour theorise that the Greeks learned about it from the Indians when Alexander the Great invaded India in 326 B.C.

What about that first kiss – we surely all remember the feeling of pleasure that it evoked. Kissing feels good and this is because the nerve endings on our lips make it one of the most sensitive areas of our body.  The stimulation of our lips sends signals to the brain, releasing the hormone oxytocin which is often referred to as the “love hormone” because it stirs up feelings of love, social bonding and well-being. Kissing also releases other happy hormones such as dopamine and serotonin and it lowers your cortisol (stress hormone) levels.

So a kiss is just a kiss – except when it spreads disease.  In 1439, King Henry VI banned kissing to prevent the spread of the Black Plague throughout England and Europe.  Even the French, thought of as one of the most romantic countries in the world, were recently asked to stop kissing when they greeted each other to try and slow the spread of coronavirus. French health minister Olivier Véran said that people should no longer do la bise, the distinctive French double (or treble) cheek kiss to greet people. The problem is that kissing with a mask on just isn’t the same! If we have to adapt to a new way of greeting each other there are several alternatives out there, including elbow bumping and the Thai “wai” semi-bow.  In Beijing, billboards told people not to shake hands but to make the traditional gong shou gesture which is a fist in the opposite palm. Then there’s the “Wuhan shake,” named after the city where COVID-19 was first identified. The touching and bumping of feet – a quick right kick, then a quick left kick – first featured in a video that then went viral. 

Prince Charles demonstrated the perfect alternative to a handshake when meeting guests as he joined his hands, palms together, and bowed slightly in respectful salutation. The Indian greeting Namaste, a combination of two Sanskrit words which translates into “bowing to you”, does not involve skin contact and allows people to maintain an appropriate distance. Although it did take a while for the Prince to remember what to do as he put his hand forward and then quickly withdrew it, which led him to break into a fit of giggles at his near faux pas.

The question is what happens to kissing post Covid-19 and will we return to the old ways of puckering up or air kissing?  There may be some hesitancy to return to our past behaviours but maybe declining to air kiss or shake hands will be seen as an expression of concern for our own and other people’s health. The age of social kissing may be over.