The casual social kiss has become the blight of a middle-class Englishman's life. Across the Channel they know precisely what to do, in fact they even have different rules depending on what region you're in, but here we continue to vacillate between the peck on one cheek and the peck on two, with the consequence that even close friends can end up performing an awkward little comedy of manners, with the bloke lurching forward for a second kiss just as the woman turns away to say hello to someone else, or vice versa.
My wife Jane has firm ideas about this. She thinks one kiss is fine, and that the two-kiss greeting is "foreign". But she still has to play that guessing game when a male friend bears down on her, and often she ends up as discombobulated as the rest of us, either pecking thin air, or offering a cheek in vain.
Some kissers have developed a way of overcoming this, almost bullying the kissee into submission by making it clear with deliberate, exaggerated movements that once the first kiss has landed, there is a second one on its way.
I have also noticed an increasing tendency to overcome the problem by tactical deployment of the hug. When I was a child, adults never hugged, not if they weren't related, and rarely even if they were. But now the hug is common currency, and once you're in that close, you can land one kiss, two kisses or no kisses at all with a certain swaggering confidence.
However, the hug brings problems of its own, especially between two men. I have a couple of tactile male friends who have always hugged me, and almost as enthusiastically I hug them back, slapping their backs with macho abandon to demonstrate to the watching world, even when there's nobody else present, the solid hetero- sexuality of the embrace. But in the past two or three years, friends who never hugged have started hugging, leading to a hug version of the kiss dilemma, whereby you're never sure whether the opening firm handshake is going to be enough.
All this uncertainty has now entered cyberspace. An Irish journalist of my acquaintance recently sought an interview with the businesswoman Karren Brady, and was startled to receive an email from her confirming the appointment in a perfectly businesslike manner but ending with an x. He considered this disconcertingly intimate, and observed that he would only send an x to his wife. But maybe that's because he's not English. I have a theory that English people compensate for fumbling their kisses in person by being boldly, unequivocally kissy in emails and text messages.
Yet this too can create misunderstanding. I maintain occasional correspondence with several female American friends, and when I started emailing them, I would append a heartfelt, unembarrassed x. Yet gradually I realised that I was never getting an x back, and then one of them actually registered her discomfort, writing, "Wow, you keep sending me kisses!" Over there, it seems that the emailed x is reserved only for those with whom you like to get naked, which explained the slight froideur I'd detected in the replies from another of my American friends, who is in her late eighties.
Strangely, even a husband and wife can have a complicated x-life. When Jane and I exchange texts, we usually end with one x, sometimes two, or even, when ardour gets the better of us, five or six. But if either of us forgets the x, the other wonders why. I'm sure relationships were simpler before the mobile phone.
I'm sure, too, that a lot of this nonsense is to do with being English. Last Friday, with the children safely out at school, Jane and I decided that our afternoon needed some no-holds-barred sensuality, so we went out for a cream tea. And in a sweet, old-fashioned tea shop, in a little Herefordshire market town, she leant over to the elderly couple at the next table and cheerfully asked whether they could recommend the lemon meringue pie? They visibly started and exchanged bewildered looks, as if she'd asked whether they could lend her 11 magpies. But it wasn't that they'd misheard, just that she'd spoken to them. "Oh yes, it's very nice," the woman said, when she'd half-recovered her composure. They left shortly afterwards, still looking slightly shaken. A goodbye kiss, we realised, was out of the question.Reuse content