The Awkward Minefield Of Air-Kissing Etiquette

The Awkward Minefield Of Air-Kissing Etiquette

Nothing seems to sum up the perils of British awkwardness better than the air-kiss dilemma – when meeting someone for the first time, do you go for an air-kiss, hug or handshake? And how do you handle it when a stranger unexpectedly goes in for the kill? SL asks the experts…

We may soon be saying goodbye to our European neighbours, but the continental penchant for air-kissing is “taking over from handshaking”, according to Debretts. The modern manners experts say it’s not an appropriate way to greet people in most professional situations (we reckon the fashion industry must be the exception), and on the whole should only be used amongst friends, not at first meeting.

However, going by our recent interactions, not many people seem to be adhering to their etiquette advice. Body language and social behavioural expert Judi James explains that while social kissing was largely confined to relatives, close friends and what she calls the "exciteable professions" – the theatre, the media, fashion (anywhere you might call someone 'darling') – it's now infinitely more widespread. "Even accountants do it," she says. "We're now starting to see the advent of non-sexual lip kissing."

As the Guardian reports, no one seems to be sure where this sudden explosion of air-kissing has come from, although there are plenty of theories – the increasing feminisation of the workplace, collapse of social formalities across the board and exposure to those working in ‘excitable professions’ through reality TV shows being just a few of them.
James believes the British social kiss is "a much more nurturing, a much closer signal" than the handshake, designed to fast-track bonding and empathy. “It also allows you to smell the other person – your nose is right by the pulse behind their ear, you can sniff their perfume and have a fairly good guess at what they had for lunch,” she says. “It's a far more intimate, personal, instant connection."

As for what you should you do when someone else instigates an air-kissing scenario (aside from politely point them in the direction of an etiquette guide, that is), firstly, if you really don’t want to air-kiss someone, trying to give off subtle clues with your body language may help you avoid it. Lizzie Post, co-host of the Awesome Etiquette podcast suggests extending your hand to shake before a hug is initiated. Or, if the other person goes in for a hug, you can create a barrier by “leaning in enough that you're not in cheek-to-cheek territory”.

And for those who do decide to follow through, Debretts has the following advice:

Kissing Guidelines

Social kissing varies according to the age of the people involved. Older people may not want to be kissed at all and even if they do not mind they often only expect one kiss. The double kiss, which is usually the man kissing the woman’s right cheek first, is the norm among younger people.

An air kiss, with no contact at all, may seem rude or impersonal, but at least it is not intrusive – it is simply a social kiss, not a sign of affection to a loved one. A very slight contact is best, and no sound effects are needed.

Who To Kiss

Women routinely kiss other women and men without it denoting anything more than a social interaction. Some men now kiss socially, but kissing is rare amongst the older generation (older men may find it embarrassing), within more traditional professions or in very rural areas. However, fathers often kiss their sons, even their adult sons (for example, the Prince of Wales) and the days of a manly handshake when seeing the eight-year-old off to prep school are over.

Many children hate being kissed by adults they hardly know. By the same token it is inadvisable for parents to force their children to kiss people. Instead they should encourage small children to learn to shake hands, which is seen as charming and a sign that they are well brought-up.

Avoiding A Kiss

If you really object to being kissed by people you hardly know then you may extend a straight arm and offer to shake hands, which should give a clear message. Do not force kisses on people who do extend a hand as a sign.


Hand-kissing, or rather a man bowing over the hand of a married woman, never a young girl, and not quite touching it with his lips, has never really caught on in Britain. It looks affected unless you come from a culture where men are brought up to hand-kiss.

As handy as their tips are – there’s one piece of vital information missing: how do you avoid accidental cheek-kissing/bashing scenarios when someone goes for three (as is the norm in Holland) or even four kisses? British etiquette expert Jo Bryant claims that technique is crucial, as is having confidence in your gesture. “Prepare to change direction at the last minute,” she says. “There are no set rules on whether you should go for one or two kisses, but you should rein it in with people you don’t know.”

And then there are SL's words of wisdom... If you are a fan of the air-kiss, please, no Absolutely Fabulous-esque 'mwah' sound effects while you're doing it.

Considering how much of a minefield air-kissing can be – especially seeing as we’re now in the midst of cold and flu season – should we ditch it and go back to handshakes instead? Debretts thinks so. They say a firm handshake, lasting a few seconds, is the "best form of greeting for both business and social situations".

And as for how to nail your handshake, they advise: “When shaking hands, always use your right hand, and ‘pump’ the hand two or three times before you let it go. Ensure that your fingers grip the other person’s palm, otherwise you will crush their fingers. Be careful not to clench in a bone-crushing grip, but do not offer a limp hand. Check that your palms are not sweaty or clammy before shaking hands.”

Other no-nos on first-meetings include double clasps, exaggerated up and down movements, reeling the person in and patting their back, and a ‘war dance’ of back and arm patting and bear hugging (we'd definitely prefer an air-kiss to that).

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