THERE IS a great deal of kissing going on these days among people who do not especially like one another. Miss Manners is not referring to the popular teenage pastime of this description, but to what is known as social kissing, an activity common among consenting, if unenthusiastic, adults.
Why everyone is doing it when no one can agree on how it should be done is a question that could also be asked of more invigorating forms of bodily contact. The consequences of kissing improperly range from having one's cheek hanging jilted in mid-air to getting one's lip neatly severed by a diamond ring.
Miss Manners had better explain the use of the kiss as a tactile aid to the oral statement, "Hello, again."
Note the word "again." It is improper to kiss people upon meeting them for the first time, and this includes baby-molesting on the part of political candidates. That, in fact, is immoral as well as improper. Half the babies who are subjected to political hanky-pank in American campaigns are not old enough to know whether they are being kissed by Democrats or Republicans, so that even if their consent is obtained, it doesn't count.
But Miss Manners digresses. Let us get back to the adults and the act of greeting, with a social kiss, someone one already knows.
Surfaces that may be employed in this act are:
The right cheek only.
The right cheek, followed by the left cheek.
This is a complete list of acceptable places for the social kiss. If you intend to utilize any other, Miss Manners requests that you and the object of your intentions step quickly behind the nearest curtain for the purpose.
If you should unintentionally deliver the kiss on another area, such as the nose or the ear, it is just as bad. Good intentions count for nothing here.
Much of the confusion comes because each participant assumes he or she is choosing the type of social kiss to be performed, and the two methods don't match.
Lip kissing and hand kissing in America must be heterosexual, regardless of private preferences. Lip kissing is ladies' choice: The woman presents her lips by tilting her face upwards without moving it to either side, and the gentleman has no choice but to perform. Gentleman's choice is the hand kiss, although there must be some excuse of a Continental background. Charter trips of 21 to 45 days are not enough.
Cheek kissing, in this country, requires a minimum of one lady, but the partner may be either a lady or a gentleman. All cheek kisses begin with the presentation of the right cheek. The recipient also presents the right cheek. The first presenter gets to choose whether they will actually kiss each other's cheeks, make a smack-smack noise in the air, or simply bump cheeks.
That person should also decide whether to proceed with the European version, to repeat the adventure using left cheeks, or to call it a day. The partner's job is still to be alert in order to follow suit and not go after someone who doesn't mean it or walk away from someone who does.
When everyone has mastered this, Miss Manners will give instruction in a more intimate greeting: the handshake.
MISS MANNERS RESPONDS
Q: What do you say to a man who has recently lost his throne? Or who lost the presidency, for that matter? I live in California.
A: Presuming that you wish to be polite, but also to refrain from making a political statement, Miss Manners suggests, "History will record your true worth." Please note what a versatile statement this is.
Q: The person who wrote in complaining about people who set out both a dessert fork and spoon should enjoy dining at our house. As the dishes are cleared away from the main course, the cry goes up, "Save your fork (or spoon) -- you'll need it for your dessert."
A: As devoted as Miss Manners is to forks and their proper use, she is big enough to admire those who have the courage of their stylistic convictions.
Q: I am having an affair with my English professor. My problem may seem silly to you, but I don't know what to call him-her in class. "Sweetie" and "honey" don't seem quite right. Should I just use his-her first name? Please do not print my name, because his-her spouse might take revenge and I might not pass the course.
A: Miss Manners fears that if you have not yet discovered if you are dealing with him-or her-, you are not going to pass the course in any case. Whoever called for "back to basics" in the classroom certainly had a point.
Q: Now that I have mastered a "weak smile," I find that I have need for a "hollow laugh." Can you please help me with how to do it?
A: Ah, the hollow laugh. Yes, indeed, it is a most useful social skill. Indispensable for responding to tasteless jokes, excessive kidding and other unacceptable forms of behavior. Miss Manners will be glad to teach it to you.
The weak smile, if you recall Miss Manners' instructions, is performed with the lips held together. For the hollow laugh, you first smile with the lips wide open, displaying all of the forward teeth, while the rest of your face registers a puzzled look. You then force up from the throat noise that does not resemble a genuine laugh, but rather imitates the words "ha ha" or "huh huh" that writers use to transcribe the sound of a laugh. When these words have been emitted, leave the open smile hanging there for a moment, as if you had forgotten about it, and then abruptly close the mouth into a solemn expression.
Q: When is it correct to address mail to "James and Mathilda Jones," rather than "Mr. and Mrs. James Jones?" I confess that the former method circumvents charges of sexism, yet it raises questions of informality and excessive familiarity. Please clarify the current thinking.
A: It is only too true, as your letter makes clear, that we live in times when the possibilities for unintentional insults are limitless. Miss Manners considers both styles of address you mention to be perfectly acceptable, but agrees that each will probably offend some people. Miss Manners suggests that you either stop worrying about this silly form of insult-catching, or hand deliver your letters.
Q: Please write an answer to my husband how a husband should act toward his wife's lady friends. We have been married 32 years, and he has always done it the same way. When they call me, he has to talk to them -- then, I can talk. When they come around, he is overly helpful, as if they came to entertain him. When I go to see them, he runs ahead and takes over the conversation.
It has caused problems with the no-goods -- they take him up on his nice ways if they can, and the decent women don't care to be around him as they can see it's a problem. He has gone to visit one and I didn't know it until she said "Your husband was over the other day and left his hat." Once we went out, and he hung on to a lady and danced with her and I could not get him away. He swears nothing was wrong. Please print how a husband should respect his wife in public, at home and with friends. He doesn't go out at night, and drinks very little.
A: In the 32 years since you married him, there have been changes in our presumptions about what constitutes respectable behavior between men and women. You will recall, perhaps, that there was once a time when it was presumed that any man and woman who were alone together so that they had an opportunity to misbehave, had certainly done so, and therefore people who did not wish them to do so, such as the mothers of young girls, never left them alone. We now have the more sensible, opposite assumption that opportunity is no proof of guilt, and people are presumed innocent unless thoroughly proven otherwise.
This is to say that your husband's lively interest in women who are friends of yours -- that is to say, who are friends of the family -- is neither disrespectful to you nor an indication of evil intentions.
The key thing for you to know is whether your husband is aware of this change.
Q: When I was a young girl, I was taught by my parents and teachers that it was incorrect and unattractive to rest one's elbows on the table while eating, and never, never to hold food or cup a glass in the air while resting the elbows on the table. Everywhere I see people eating with elbows on the table, and holding sandwiches, rolls, cups or glasses in the air. To me, this presents a lazy and unattractive picture. It takes only a second to put the food or glass on the table during the time you are readying for the next bite. Has this lovely custom of keeping elbows off the table vanished? Is everyone too lazy or too tired to put a beverage or food down?
A: Frankly, yes. And it's not just elbows one sees improperly on the table, but commercial cartons and jars, and books. But take heart: Miss Manners sees a renaissance of table manners, partly because of curiosity on the part of children who grew up not having heard of them, and partly from people such as yourself and Miss Manners who can't stand it any longer.