Every culture has its deeply ingrained notions about manners and propriety. But no two cultures are exactly alike. I grew up in Brazil, where the overall style of human interaction is quite informal. People greet friends and acquaintances with kisses on the cheek—women kiss everyone, men kiss women but don’t kiss men, God forbid! Even when you get introduced to someone for the first and last time, however briefly, you might kiss him or her on the cheek.
You grow up with it and you acquire a reflex: you kiss as a matter of course, without much thought, without ever asking yourself if perhaps the kissing is appropriate. Indeed, not to kiss someone becomes the inappropriate behavior, and if you decide not to do it, or if you forget or neglect it, people will think there’s something wrong with you.
The kisses vary in number and intimacy. Sometimes a single kiss (right cheek to right cheek), sometimes two (first the right cheek, then the left one). The lips might not touch the cheek at all, so the cheeks meet lightly and you do a little sucking sound. It’s not quite like the air kisses of certain celebrities in America, say, as contact is actually established. Until very recently, it was absolutely taboo for two straight men kissing each other on the cheek, with the exception of your kissing your father, uncle, or grandfather-and those man-to-man kisses were by no means obligatory. Now it’s becoming fashionable in some circles for men to greet their straigth men friends with the usual cheek contact or a variation thereof, but I expect it’ll be a while until man-to-man cheek-kissing becomes universal.
In the US, it’s extremely rare for friends to kiss each other, however intimate the friendship. Only friends of mine who have lived in Europe seem comfortable with the cheek-to-cheek contact; other friends might hug me, but never kiss, and even their hugging entails tons of space being kept between our bodies. And strangers meeting for the first time never, ever kiss, of course.
Decades ago, when I was a college student in the US, I spent a summer in Brazil and returned to NY for the beginning of the school session in September. The night after my arrival I attended a concert somewhere. During the intermission I ran into a woman my age whom I knew in passing from the previous semester. Without thinking, because I was still in my Brazilian mode, I put my cheek against her and did the sucking thing. She recoiled in horror. A microsecond too late I understood what I had done: I had sexually harassed her, and in public! I thought it’d be impossible to explain the situation, so I just disappeared into the crowd, and we never crossed paths again. It’s been roughly 28 years since the event, and I still remember her disgusted reaction and my own sense of shame.
You guilty and shameful readers out there—care to share some traumatic bouts of bad manners with us?