At this rate we'll be doing it to everyone

Suddenly the smacker is in and to land one on the cheek is de rigueur. Has old British reserve gone out of the window?

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Gordon and Sarah. Al and Tipper. Al and Oprah. George and Oprah. Suddenly it seems everyone is kissing each other, openly and shamelessly. Chris Evans even kissed his accountant when he sold his Ginger Media Group. The bean counter had just made Evans a very rich man, but couldn't they just have shaken hands? They could have, of course; but slowly the traditional handshake, as solid and reassuring as an old leather armchair, as British as scones for tea, is being eradicated and replaced by its sexier younger cousin - the kiss.

Gordon and Sarah. Al and Tipper. Al and Oprah. George and Oprah. Suddenly it seems everyone is kissing each other, openly and shamelessly. Chris Evans even kissed his accountant when he sold his Ginger Media Group. The bean counter had just made Evans a very rich man, but couldn't they just have shaken hands? They could have, of course; but slowly the traditional handshake, as solid and reassuring as an old leather armchair, as British as scones for tea, is being eradicated and replaced by its sexier younger cousin - the kiss.

We used to know where we stood when it came to greet-ings. A firm handshake was de rigueur in all non-social contexts, while kissing was for lovers, family and close friends of the opposite sex, and hardly ever done in public. Bear hugs and the pressing of cheek to cheek were strictly for continentals and Communists, especially when two men were involved. It was only on the safely macho arena of the football pitch that Britons were known to let their emotions flood out, any suspicion of homo-eroticism dispelled by the climax of a triumphant male penetrating the opposition's goal. Even then, there seemed something vaguely ludicrous about such behaviour, leading Kenny Everett to compare footballers' post-scoring embraces with the jubilation felt by a mechanic who had just repaired a car: how silly it would be for him to start hugging his fellows in the garage. Meanwhile, couples kept their affections private, chastely pecking each other on the cheek in company, and friends of the opposite sex showed appropriate restraint.

Today the question of greeting is a vexed one, and Georgie Porgie Pudding and Pie would be just as likely to make the girls (or boys) cry by not kissing them as by urgently pressing his suit upon them. Formality is being dispensed with at all levels of society - even the Prime Minister urges us all to call him by his first name - so perhaps it is no wonder that the old distinctions, such as when you should shake hands and when you should kiss, have become blurred. The handshake can seem overly stiff, almost unfriendly, whereas it is now quite common to enjoy the imprint of a complete stranger's lips on first encounter. Some are used to it, but others can be left embarrassed and confused if the gesture is not expected and thus not reciprocated.

The late John Morgan, author of Modern Manners, had strong views on the matter. "Social kissing, as the name suggests, is usually reserved for social life, unless you work in lovey-dovey metiers such as fashion, magazines, the theatre and so on, where no professional greeting is complete without osculatory over-excitement. It is crass and presumptuous to kiss people you are meeting for the first time: a traditional handshake or small nod of the head is all that is called for."

The novelist Fay Weldon also draws a distinct demarcation between the social and professional. "You wouldn't kiss your boss unless you meant something by it," she says, "and if the upholsterer comes two or three times you might shake his hand, but you wouldn't kiss him."

Quite so. But perhaps the difficulty is not at this level of social interaction. What do you do when you meet people of an equal standing, or friends of friends? "You shake hands with strangers, and then you might kiss the second or third time you met, earlier if you felt a special affinity with them," says Weldon.

Then there is that other conundrum: how many times do you kiss? Experience suggests that older people are satisfied with one; two is more usual with younger generations, although not universal; and then there are those insatiates who demand at least three. This lack of a clear norm often leads to one person stepping back thinking the formalities are over, only to receive another unexpected smacker. The person who has proffered one kiss too few then hurriedly apologises, having been made to feel miserly and rude. Or worse, the two engaged in kissing hello bang their heads - which is not at all chic.

Again, Morgan made it all sound so simple. "One kiss is usual for the older generation, two quite permissible for young people, but three is quite excessive for any age. If kissing twice, it is usual to adopt a left-right sequence," he adds helpfully.

Weldon, less certain than he, suggests the confusion has its advantages. "Whether you kiss once, twice or three times, it ends up being a declaration of ineptitude on all sides, although it's actually very disarming."

The veteran socialite Sir Dai Llewellyn thinks the problem is that the British have imported a foreign etiquette and don't know the rules. "A good, warm, firm, dry handshake coupled with eye contact is hard to beat," he says. "But the British think kissing rather foreign and chic, and get it wrong because they don't know the rules - it's like having tomato ketchup with everything. You even have lovers kissing on both cheeks when that's what friends do. Lovers should kiss on one cheek."

Llewellyn is not a fan of kissing on first acquaintance - "it's quite strange, even from a very pretty girl" - and declares the triple kiss distinctly non-U: "It mostly happens in places influenced by the Greek Orthodox church."

The writer and dandy about- town Robin Dutt, who curates an annual exhibition called The Kiss, laments the decline of handshaking expertise. "People have forgotten how to do it properly," he says. "You should put out your hand vertically, but often people put their hands out horizontally and rather apologetically, like a low-flying aircraft. It's almost as though they are trying to placate."

He agrees that kissing on first acquaintance is on the increase. "It can be either quite upsetting or deliciously alarming, but you do cut out a lot of time spent shaking hands." Dutt has even known friends to kiss four times. "Three times on the cheeks, and then once on the forehead to finish off."

To the young, however, kissing is part of normal etiquette. "It is quite common to kiss the first time you meet," says the model and boutique owner Lady Victoria Hervey. "I don't mind it - I think we're just becoming less formal."

So there we have it. The handshake is dead, and kissing is now for all in dress-down, "call me Tony" Britain - unless you're a tradesman.

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