THERE WAS a time when being kissed by a stranger was a noteworthy event which one might puzzle over afterwards in private, with delight or repugnance - what did it mean?

Now it is something which happens every time you leave a dinner party. People you've never met before and have not spoken to during the evening kiss you farewell on both cheeks. I have even been kissed on arrival by total strangers. It is not, in most cases, any kind of a come on, just a social habit which has got wildly out of control. I hate it for being invasive, indiscriminate and insincere and am glad to see a survey shows that 70 per cent of the British public agree. We regard it as a nasty Continental import. What's more, we have not really got the hang of it, any more than we naturally think in kilometres.

One side or two? Which side first? Should your lips touch the other person's flesh or is an airkiss best? In France last week, I met an 80-year-old family friend who managed to kiss me in the formal manner, inquire after my family and send me on my way in one seamless, dignified movement. Like peeling her fruit with a knife and fork it was something she'd done all her life.

Recently I was leaving church and bent towards another octogenarian, wishing to tell her some news. She clearly thought I was going to kiss her and, starting backwards like a frightened horse, she fled from me down the church steps, risking a broken hip. But other than taking to your heels how do you avoid being kissed?

My cousin Jane, who is phobic about it, lets the fact be widely known - she backs off firmly and finds her position is considered odd but generally respected. I envied one friend whose protective terrier went mad if anyone tried to kiss her. Putting out a pre-emptive hand is quite effective but some people use it to pull you towards them and do a sort of combined kiss and handshake. It seems rude to refuse to kiss someone - insinuating you find them smelly or in some way beneath you - but you have to draw the line.

Having to kiss teachers I had hated at school when I went to a reunion was particularly awful. In fact kissing other women is generally worse than men. Red, sweaty male faces looming up at drinks parties are preferable to perfectly made-up female ones which come at you with an implied threat - we have to kiss but make real contact and you die.

When you wish to convey real affection you now have to give the other person a bearhug; a mere kiss has become so devalued. I can't help thinking it is a pity that instead of adopting the French two cheek salute we did not follow the Polish custom. A courtly kiss on the hand, or rather just over the hand, has genuine charm.

Celestria Noel is a former social editor of `Harpers & Queen'.



OF 1,000 people asked what they thought of kissing as a way of saying hello or goodbye, only 13 per cent liked the idea. Just imagine: 800 people pursing their lips in disapproval rather than in affection. And they weren't alone. "It all seems fiendishly Continental," opines Peter York, the style ayatollah. "It leads to to confusion and people feel embarrassed," warns Mary Killen of the Spectator. Drusilla Beyfus, the other Gloria Vanderbilt of the Nineties, lays down the etiquette law: "It is impertinent to kiss ... the first time you meet. It is overfamiliar. It suggests..."

Oh lighten up, girls. Such fastidiousness about a mere gesture, a tiny pucker, a minimal noise. You don't have to join in. Nobody requires you to kiss if you don't want to; the worst you have to fear is to be kissed by a stranger - to be the recipient of an impulsive, but supplicatory, gesture which should be taken as the tribute of an admirer, rather than some unhygienic Froggy insult.

A kiss is an expression of fondness, of complicity, of mutual respect, a small abbreviated private contract. It means: we're friends; or should be; or will be. These high ideals can seem devalued at fashionable London parties, when people don't quite know what to say after the initial fusillade of kisses, and haven't time to develop an actual conversation. But kissing has other uses. The party kiss buys you time, to remember names, to prepare conversational tactics and to establish the precise level of welcome or resistance detectable in the cheek of the kissee. It signals a truce in hostilities, a mild intimacy, a new relationship, an exploration or a betrayal. There's a lot more going on than in a boring old handshake.

Chaps have rules. They know that you don't generally kiss female strangers on the first meeting, for fear of being thought pushy. You needn't kiss every acquaintance you meet. You don't kiss women in uniform - nurses, traffic wardens, pilots - or women colleagues at work, or lady acquaintances over 60, or Margaret Thatcher. Otherwise, you can kiss the female cheek with impunity as a sign of affection spilling over into physicality. Both cheeks. No ears. No corner-of-the-mouth malarkey. No tongues. Women, meanwhile, have a whole active-passive dichotomy to negotiate. They tend to kiss only men whom they find attractive. Otherwise, they proffer a cheek with a gesture that says, "You may..."; but whether to start with the left or the right, no one is quite sure.

Confronted by a man doing that preliminary which-side-first routine, my friend Rachel tends to lean forward and plonk a smacker straight on his lips. This ensures that she gets a) the upper hand and b) his undivided attention as he wrestles with the possibility that she may, must, fancy him. "I can't stand all that ducking and weaving," she explains, "I'm a busy woman".

For the rest of us, the social kiss is a sweet act of Lilliputian intercourse. It's a joint expression of warmth and loyalty, the first tentative conjoining of two faces, and the register of a dozen social subtleties. Don't let anyone try to stamp it out. What kind of formal prissiness would prevail at parties if the kissing had to stop?

John Walsh is a veteran of the literary party circuit.