It seems effortless for others, as if they instinctively know how to do it. I think I thought it would get easier with age. But every time I lean in to greet someone, I’m caught in a flailing vagueness of kissing, air kissing, and hugging. I’ve either forgotten – or I’ve never learned – how to say hello.

Here’s where I’m fine: the handshake. Pretty straight forward. Extend your hand, the right one. Look him in eye even if the guy is looking at your tits, because eventually his eyes will make it to your face, especially if you clear your throat loudly. Grip the hand with solid confident strength squeezing hard, but not too hard. And if you are given a clammy hand, once you’ve released it, you can subtly slide your palm into your back pocket and dry it on the denim while nodding along with your new acquaintance and his Grindhouse revelation that being an amputee might be “awesome.”

Trouble begins with: the open arms. When I see someone approaching me with open arms, I’ll do the same, coming to them with open arms, hoping to see what their love means to me. I am often already fully wrapped around their body like a divorced dad clinging to the last hours of a weekend visit when I realize all they wanted was a hello pat on the back. It’s a bad dance lesson as I stiffen to match their stiffness just as they realize oh, this is an actual hug and then they are hugging me as I’m pulling away and by then it’s time just put baby in the corner and get on with lunch.

And then, utter disaster: the kiss hello. Kissing has its implications and complications but the machinations always have me playing catch-up. As the person leans into you, there’s the moment when you realize there will be kissing involved in this greeting. Sometimes, the trouble starts right there as I also lean in but turn the wrong cheek, suddenly finding myself about two seconds away from a make-out kiss. If I have turned the other cheek and lined up correctly with the person, then I wonder if it’s going to be an air kiss or a cheek-to-cheek kiss. I equate touch with sincerity and so at this point, I mash my cheek into theirs, hopefully not so hard that they lose their footing and plunge into the spring bed of tulips.

Then, another etiquette challenge: will this be a two-cheek-Tony-Soprano greeting or do we stop at the one-cheek-Paris-Hilton-at-Kitson hello? This seems completely determined by the other person because if they are coming back for more, I feel compelled lean in quickly so they’re not standing there alone, leaning forward like confetti throwers on a parting ship’s bow.

Global lip customs vary. In Spain it’s always two kisses, right cheek first. There seem to be fewer guidelines — or none at all — in the US, but one thing is for sure: kiss hellos are here to stay. “Cheek kissing is displacing the handshake – once the customary greeting in social and business circles – offering whole new ways of looking stupid,” writes Elizabeth Olson.

I found an instructional video and this air kiss how-to, both full of helpful lip tips:

Women sometimes make a discreet kissing sound (like “muah!”) when they air kiss; it’s generally seen as a friendly and feminine gesture to further embellish the greeting.

I now “Muah!” repeatedly while figuring out how much cheek grazing will or will not occur. For that is the trickiest part of hellos and goodbyes: reading the other person, gauging their genuineness.

Air kisses have an air of insincerity, of forced closeness or cover-ups for lingering awkwardness between two people. But I’ve come to learn they are worth the effort. Leaning in for a kiss, even a trifling one, signifies a willingness to connect. Which is awesome, no matter what physical ineptitude may erupt.

Maybe a way to manage the klutzy is to simply go first. Become the hello-er who leans in for one (not two) cheek-grazing-muah-sounding kiss. That, I can do as good as a handshake. I may suck at sucking face (cheek), but by my troth, I kiss thee with a most constant heart.

20 responses to ““Muah!””

  1. ks says:

    Love this post! Like you, I am often physically awkward in greeting situations, and also like you, I cave to the cultural imperialism of the other person’s style. And then I feel dirty and disingenuous about it when it is SO not my style. Why let people do this to us? I hate the faux hugging and kissing with people I hardly know or like. I think I might start retreating when they come toward me, claiming, “I’m sorry but I just sneezed all over my hands,” then run for the nearest restroom. Gee, doesn’t that sound empowering?

  2. MF says:

    When I moved to NY four years ago, I was shocked by this new greeting: the kiss on the cheek. Was I supposed to greet everyone this way? Only people I knew well? How well?
    Men? Women? Children? But over time I figured out the basic rules.

    I like this form of greeting. Visitors and newcomers to NY often comment about how overwhelming and lonely this city can be. The “kiss on the cheek” greeting is one of the things that makes me feel the opposite about this city. If it’s replacing the handshake on a wider basis, I say “fantastic!”

  3. Marleyfan says:

    You forgot man kissing. Within my dad’s side of family, the men kiss each other (and the women) on the lips when greeting, followed by a big hug. Surprisingly, outsiders think this show of affection is very cool. Long Live the Man Kiss.

  4. Dave says:

    There was a New Yorker cartoon recently in which a couple sees another couple approaching. “Quick, remind me, are they one-kiss or two-kiss people?”

    I agree, it’s a whole new way to look ridiculous. But can be nice when it works.

    Maybe we should create a New York regional standard kiss, like they have in different parts of France (so I’m told). Right cheek sounds good to me.

  5. Marleyfan says:

    “Muah!” my Ass

  6. g-lock says:

    I always thought “Muah!” was used by those who want to make it sound like they are kissing you when, in fact, they barely make any contact with the kissee’s face. Like, “Hey, I like you enough to kiss you, but let’s not get carried away!”

    Marleyfan: Long live the Man Kiss, indeed!

  7. lisa t. says:

    I liked this post because I do love cheek kisses, but sometimes am not sure who is a hugger or a cheek kisser or what. Me, I’m pretty affectionate. And we seem very kissy in our westcoast whatsit circle…

    In middle and high school, no one EVER gave cheek kisses as a greeting. Now, in the schools where I work, cheek kisses are all the rage. It’s pretty cute.

    G-lock: Everytime I see someone write “Muah!” I think of the Count on Sesame Street. (Four…Four! cheek kisses! muah-ah-ah-ah…)

  8. bryan says:

    i’m really in favor of open mouth kisses on the cheek as a greeting, especially if the person delivering is madd sexy.

    i also think the man kiss in marley’s family is kind of cute. and manly. all at once.

  9. W2 says:

    Thanks to ks for giving us all the proper dialog to avoid the kiss hello!

    Man kissing sounds oddly hot. Maybe you have some family videos you could post, Marley?

    Kissing hola does seem to be much more en vogue in NYC — proximity to Europe? Or are West Coasters too laid back to lean in?

    And yes, yes yes Barberlicious, let’s codify a NY greeting — or maybe even special Whatsiter greeting — right cheek first and the kiss sound replaced by Count laughter: Muah muah muah!

  10. bacon says:

    personal message: few pleasures are more divine than arrangements coupled with “planet earth”, or perhaps the TV version of “american life”. we wish you were here.

  11. bryan says:

    #10 — that sounds like a long-distance “muah!” to me. maybe even open-mouthed.

  12. Stephanie Wells says:

    I can’t wait to see you all again–it’s gonna be full tongue all around. Mualalalah!

  13. Dave says:

    Bacon, that sounds lovely; why are there no affordable, supersonic flights from NYC to DC? I haven’t seen either show, since I don’t have cable. I did see a 4-minute clip from the TV TAL and was enchanted. I (still) want to have Ira Glass’s babies.

  14. Tim Wager says:

    Full-on man kissing is the thing in *my* family too, Marleyfan!

    Another wrinkle comes up, WW, with the friendly cheek kiss (mostly with good friends) that just starts to border on a kiss on the mouth. It’s always hard to judge how far over onto the lips the kiss will or should go. Give too much cheek and you look like you’re being cold; go too far the other way and you may seem overly friendly or maybe kinda creepy. Actually talking it through, though, and agreeing on the percentage of lip-to-lip contact would just be formal and stiff. Oh, the complexities of human social interaction. Maybe Stephanie’s solution is the best: mualalalalah to you all.

  15. Jeremy says:

    I always end up kissing people on the ear.

  16. i watched science of sleep last night, finally. there’s a whole extended conversation about where to place the kiss — midway between ear and mouth. obviously provokes anxiety among europeans too.


  17. lisa t. says:

    i think i’ve had a couple of those kisses on the ear, jeremy. they’re kind of loud.

  18. Beth W. says:

    I really enjoyed this post. I lived most of my life in Oregon and Washington where the kiss at greeting is rare, reserved for the more affectionate family members and never with friends. I even have friends who don’t readily hug.

    I asked my brother last year about the kissing, Why do people from LA that I don’t know kiss me?, but he didn’t have an explanation. He said something like, Yeah that looked awkward. I’ve adjusted to this new social greeting and now it’s ok for you friendly, LA strangers to go ahead and kiss me.

  19. Ruben Mancillas says:

    We just got done watching Volver and I couldn’t help but think of this post.

    Cheek kissing, air kissing, and smooching sounds abound but the character of Agustina is in a league of her own. She would rapid fire four to five very loud kisses to one cheek before settling for one or two quickies on cheek number two.

  20. J-Man says:

    I haven’t much noticed the kissing so much here in L.A., but definitely hugging “hello” to total strangers is all the rage. I’ve noticed it a lot more in the last couple of years, but perhaps it’s just all those music industry types. I wonder if there’s been a study on greeting rituals within various professions?