You can kiss the handshake goodbye

April 24, 2006|By KEVIN COWHERD

Leave it to The New York Times to deliver another jolt of bad news recently.

No, it wasn't a story about the war in Iraq. Or the ozone layer thinning and the polar icecaps melting like popsicles.

Or muggers knocking little old ladies over the head at Manhattan gas stations for their Shell cards.

No, this one was even more disturbing.

It had to do with kissing.

Specifically, it had to do with the social kiss, that peck on the cheek that too often leads to all sorts of clumsy facial gyrations between the kisser and kissee.

Anyway, the bad news is that, according to the Times, the popularity of the social kiss continues to grow.

In fact, the Times wrote: "Despite the awkwardness, the cheek, or social, kiss is displacing the handshake, once the customary greeting in American social and business circles."

Great.

Just what we need in an already nervous, fractured society: more complications in the way we greet each other.

The beauty of the handshake as a greeting is that everybody knows how to do it. Hence, there's no anxiety involved whatsoever.

After all, how can you screw up a handshake?

You stick out your hand.

You grab the other person's hand.

And you pump it a few times, depending on how many cups of coffee you're working on.

What could be simpler?

(OK, fine, there are occasional "firmness" issues connected with the handshake. How hard do I squeeze, am I squeezing too hard, not hard enough, etc.

(Plus you occasionally end up shaking hands with a person who seems determined that the handshake never end. You know the type. It's like they're running for mayor. They stand there pumping your hand 10, 12, 14 times. And they won't let go.

(It's very annoying. At some point, you just have to say "Stop!" and take your hand back.)

Now, you contrast that with the social kiss.

Everything about the social kiss is riddled with anxiety.

First, you have to make an instantaneous determination if the other person wants to kiss or shake hands.

If they start that little forward-lean, with the head-tilt, well, you know you're doomed.

Abandon all hope: Here comes the kiss.

Even when you're sure the other person wants to kiss, you can't really relax.

Because now you have to quickly figure out your next move.

Do you do a forward-lean of your own?

Or do you stand back in the "ready" position to receive the kiss?

Other things to consider: Do you do a head-tilt of your own to accommodate the other person's head-tilt?

Are we going right cheek to right cheek?

Are we doing a quick cheek-brushing thing or an actual kiss?

Well, you see the problem here.

There are just too many options.

It's like a golf swing: Too many things can go wrong for this to work smoothly.

And every one of these decisions has to be made in a flash.

You need a brain like a Pentium 4 processor to sort all this out.

And if you guess wrong on even one of these options, the whole thing goes down the tubes.

Now, instead of a smooth peck on the cheek, you've got Ishtar.

You've got FEMA in New Orleans.

You've got Letterman hosting the Academy Awards.

The whole thing goes south.

Suddenly you're bumping heads, mashing lips, kissing hair instead of cheeks, etc.

Look, I once kissed a woman's ear in one of those awful kissing scrums.

Oh, God, it can get ugly.

You don't see a lot of social kissing among men in this country - OK, except on The Sopranos, where they're planting a big wet one on a guy's cheek every five seconds, even when they're getting ready to whack someone and roll his body up in a carpet.

But even women struggle to get the whole technique down right.

True story: My wife and I were at a wake not long ago when she ran into an old friend.

The two went to kiss each other.

And they got the whole cheek-to-cheek thing wrong.

One offered the right cheek, the other the left. Then they both reversed cheeks, and of course that didn't work, either.

Then the most incredible thing happened.

Out of sheer panic, they ended up kissing each other on the lips.

After which they both burst out laughing.

That's always a nice touch: Two people cracking up at a wake.

With a nice firm handshake, you don't worry about something like that.

kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

To listen to podcasts featuring Kevin Cowherd, go to baltimoresun.com/cowherd.

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