A little while back, my name showed up in a viral blog post about huggers. As Tim Sackett (the author and master bro-hugger) had so aptly noted, I am one.
But hugging is child’s play compared to what happens above the neck.
These are not my lips, don’t get excited.
That’s where things get interesting.
Let’s level set: I’m not talking about romantic kisses here. I’m a happily married man, plus this isn’t that kind of blog. What I’m talking about is what happens at conferences, business lunches, and those quasi-business related nights out that bring colleagues together across gender lines and that are the definition of profersonal™, which preceding generations never had to deal with—at least not at the scale that we do. It’s these circumstances that I’m talking about. Ones where a social kiss hello is the norm.
Because when the “norm” is an activity no two people seem to agree on how to do, then someone needs to be talking about it.
As you might imagine, I’ve been party to a variety of kiss-based awkwardness over the years. The simple act of saying hello has brought me face-to-face with:
- The are-we-or-aren’t-we
- The dammit-we-bumbed-cheeks-and-that-kinda-hurt
- The oh-so-now-we-do-it-on-that-side-too-this-is-new-for-me
- The no-you-did-not-just-air-kiss-me-you-pretentious-shit
- The dude-but-you’re-a-dude-ah-but-I-forgot-you’re-Italian
- The you’re-drunk-already-huh
- The I didn’t-realize-you-started-pulling-away-now-I’m chasing-your-face-this-is-weird
- The please-close-your-mouth-I’m-just-trying-to-be-polite-here
- The we-went-the-same-way-but-at-least-we’re-good-nose-dancers
- The hey-you-missed-your-target-but-I’ll-play-it-cool-for-you
- The how-on-earth-did-I-end-up-with-a-mouthful-of-hair
- The oh-no-I-think-I-just-gave-you-the-wrong-idea
- The you-smell-fantastic-and-now-I-feel-creepy-for-noticing
- The did-someone-just-trip-because-there’s-no-reason-we-should-have-just-bumped-teeth
- The hi-it’s-so-nice-to-WOWIDIDNOTSEETHATCOMING
If social hugging is basic math, social kissing is differential calculus. Especially in today’s world where men and women work together professionally and develop friendships beyond work, the rules of the game are… confusing.
It can get to the point where the decision to invite a spouse to a business function feels like inviting them to a high school reunion: “Honey, there’s going to be a bunch of people you don’t know, a ton of inside jokes you won’t understand, and I’m not sure I want my worlds colliding, so maybe you want to go see a movie tonight instead? By yourself?”
And I’m not even dealing with sexual tension here, just the kiss hello between colleagues and platonic friends! The level of complexity added into the mix when one or more people at the event is “available” (with or without quotes) is beyond the scope of this post. I know this because I hear the stories, I see the relationships, and even if I weren’t savvy enough to put two and two together, I’ve seen the photos. You wouldn’t believe the photos I’ve been shown. People, stop taking photos!
I have a hard enough time getting things right with my own wife in the privacy of our own home. She comes home from work and I get a quick peck on the cheek as opposed to a lip kiss: is she still in work mode, or am I in trouble? We’re sitting on the couch and she lifts her head from my shoulder and brushes my ear: is it game on! or is she so tired that she physically failed to lift her head any higher? I rarely know. All I know is that I’m free to guess wrong as often as I’d like, this at least is a safe environment.
But out with professional colleagues in a social setting? Far from safe. More like being out in a rainforest, barefoot, unarmed, and slathered in honey.
Things are so dangerous that when it comes to the social kiss, I assume that something bad is about to happen. Either they’ll screw up or I will. And either way, we’re both going to feel awkward. So my policy is to take the kiss in stride, treat whatever happens as if it were exactly what was supposed to happen… and never mention it again.
But despite my sangfroid countenance, on the inside I have all sorts of questions. I’ve had them my entire adult life. Here are a few, along with my answers. I’d be grateful to anyone who has a better suggestion for how to handle these situations.
God knows I making all this shit up.
What am I supposed to do with a friend’s wife?
Lean in for a cheek kiss. I always go to my left, her right, I don’t know why. That could be wrong. Anyway. Sometimes I’ll touch her right elbow with my left hand. I’m not really sure why I do that, I just have my wife here to help me visualize different situations and she noticed it, and now I’ve noticed it, too. Totally subconscious. Maybe it’s to keep everyone steady? Or to keep her arm between us like a barrier? Or maybe I’m just flirting. I honestly have no idea. But I do know what my wife and I will be “discussing” later.
On the other hand, I have also realized that I keep eye contact to the bare minimum here, unless the couple are close friends and it’s hugs and kisses all around.
What if I know the wife better than the husband (or the girlfriend better than the boyfriend)?
Same protocol as above, only with a knowing, wicked little smirk to the wife when no one else is looking. Just kidding. No smirk, that’s evil. But more eye contact. And, when I am introduced to (or am saying hello to) the husband, it’s definitely a firm handshake and clear eye contact. While this is something I try to do this all the time, in this situation, he’s got to know that I see him and respect his relationship with his wife, so I pay particular attention.
My female colleague showed up with a friend and she’s hot. Now what?
Let’s back up. I don’t really care what the friend looks like. Attractive is nice, but I don’t want the social dynamics here determined by how people look, I want them set by how I make them feel. If I’m letting her looks dictate my actions, then I’m not really in control of myself, and that’s a train wreck waiting to happen.
The first thing I watch for is the body language. What is the colleague doing while I say hello to our friend? Let’s assume, based on the theme of this post, that the friend gets a kiss hello.
Then, if the colleague seems outgoing, then she gets a kiss, too. That’s an easy one.
If the colleague is tentative, then I might offer her a handshake or a hug but no kiss. If I get the sense that she’s unsure of where the boundaries are, then I want to signal that I’ll keep her safe if she follows my lead. (It’s just like doing a scene in improv.)
But what if the friend is aloof—not tentative, but cold and distant? In my experience, initial aloofness can mean different things. Me, I’ve never had to dig an emotional moat around me to protect myself from fawning douchebags, but I know a lot of women who have, which is why I never take initial distance personally. Biology is biology, and she’s just doing what she’s learned she needs to do. This person gets a congenial handshake, warm smile, and direct and extended eye contact. I’ll know in 2 minutes if the drawbridge will come down, or if she is indeed a cold fish.
I am reasonably close with 3 of the women at the table but don’t know the 4th at all.
Say hello to the three you know first. When you get to the fourth, continue with whatever the first thee got and if that means she gets a kiss, then go ahead, but call out the fact that she is now party to a level of intimacy usually reserved for better known company. Do it in a friendly and earnest tone to keep it non-creepy. Anything less cries out, “You may as well go home now, I won’t be paying you any attention.” Anything more cries out, “You’ll want to go home now, as my social skills clearly never progressed after 8th grade.”
I just ran into a close friend (or the wife of a close friend) in a place where we’re bound to be recognized by people who don’t know our back story. How do I say hello?
This is one of those situations where I figure everyone else can go fuck themselves. She gets the same hug and kiss hello that she’d get if she and her husband were meeting my wife and I out for dinner. And if other people start talking? Then they talk. What are they going to say that is going to impact my life? Even if someone were to confront me, my defense is the best defense a person can have: the truth. We’re friends. I gave her a kiss hello. And?
There’s a woman at dinner who’s recently divorced and everyone knows it.
I know you want me to say that she gets the 1-armed bro-hug for appearances sake, but she doesn’t. She doesn’t deserve that, and trying to play to the gallery never works anyway. Again, people can go fuck themselves.
Which makes me realize, the truth is only part of the best defense a person can have. The other part is consistency. Which is why I’m consistent in giving either hugs or kisses hello: there’s less opportunity to be misinterpreted when you can point to a friggin’ blog post and say “Seriously, it’s not you, don’t get excited, this is just how I roll, here’s proof.”
Truth + consistency, baby.
I just gave the most humiliating awkward kiss of my life, how do I fix this?
Forget it, stuff happens. (Have you not been reading?!)
If it’s really, really bad, then own it. Maybe immediately, or maybe come back to it later in the night or the next time you see the woman. And for God’s sake, when you own it, do the mea culpa in public. If there’s no one else around, it’s going to sound like you’re asking for a second chance, if you follow my drift. By doing it in public, you keep everything safe and let her know that you know you messed up, while also signaling that all this is is a funny story, and not any type of invitation. Also: make sure your wife knows. Tell the truth.
What if I just got busted trying to lay on a real kiss?
You’re a douche.
When it comes to the social kiss, especially in a profersonal™ setting, I have no idea what I’m doing… and neither do you. So we may as well enjoy ourselves, right?
See you out there… and let’s keep it friendly, OK?
by Jason Seiden, CEO of Ajax Workforce Marketing.