July 6 is International Kissing Day, a holiday that originated in the United Kingdom and was adopted worldwide in the early 2000s. It celebrates the kiss in all its iterations, motivations, and meanings—such as Marc Chagall’s painting below, “The Birthday Kiss.” So let’s find out a little more about this most common practice.
Kinds of kisses
Not every kiss has a romantic connotation, and not every kiss involves lips touching each other. There are kisses on the cheek exchanged between family members and close friends; kisses on the forehead; kisses on the top of the head; and kisses of hands and even feet, the latter reserved for someone showing extreme submission—such as a subject kissing the foot of the king.
Most cultures engage in the embrace in some form or another, but studies show that less than 50% of cultures practice lip kissing. Nose touching has been the practice (in romantic and social settings) not only for the Inuits—what they call kunik, and we refer to as the “Eskimo kiss,” but in many other cultures. The Maoris greet each other in a similar fashion with hongi, touching foreheads and noses.
Prince Harry and Willie Apiata, a celebrated Maori athlete, doing the hongi.
History of kissing
Thousands of clay tablets from Mesopotamian societies, dating back 4,500 years, contain evidence that kissing was part of romantic intimacy, as well as friendships and family relations. The behavior did not emerge abruptly or in a specific society but appears to have been practiced in multiple ancient cultures over several millennia.
An interesting use of the kiss is mentioned in the Old Testament when Jacob deceives his blind father Isaac with a kiss. Pretending to be his twin brother Esau, Jacob steals Isaac’s blessing along with the power to rule. Another, more sensual kiss is described in the Song of Solomon: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth.”
Once the kiss arrived in Rome—most likely brought by Alexander the Great after his invasion of India—the Romans set about improving the practice. They used three forms of kissing: the osculum (peck on the cheek), savium (eager mouth kisses), and basium (kisses on the lips). In Roman society, when, where, whom, or what you kissed was most important. Because of high levels of illiteracy, Romans signed contracts with an “X,” which they then kissed to make the document legally binding. This is probably where using an “X” for a kiss came from.
Throughout the middle ages, kisses served as a demonstration of one’s social standing. A king’s subjects would kiss his ring and robe, his hands, or even the ground before him. Similarly, people pressed their lips to the pope’s ring and slipper. The illustration above shows an emperor subjugating himself to the pope by kissing the religious leader’s slipper.
Anthropological origins of the kiss
According to many anthropologists, the sexual-romantic kiss is not universal in all human cultures. However, the parental kiss seems to be relatively ubiquitous.
Charles Darwin was one of the first to point out that kissing wasn’t practiced across all cultures. He noted that kissing "is replaced in various parts of the world by the rubbing of noses." This practice also entails inhaling each other’s breath which perhaps indicates that kissing may be more closely linked to our sense of smell than taste. In 1897, anthropologist Paul d'Enjoy observed that in many Asian cultures, mouth-to-mouth kissing was considered an “abomination.” Instead, they used the “sniff kiss,” which prevails to this day. An expression of warmth, gratitude or appreciation, the “sniff kiss” is executed by shutting one’s lips tightly inwards, pressing nose against cheek, and giving a long sniff. For many cultures around the world, smelling a loved one's cheek has long served as a means of recognition. Over time, a brush of the lips may have become a traditional accompaniment to smelling one another.
The sense of smell seems to be involved in many mammalian exchanges, whether to assess the friendliness or enmity of another, or to find a mate. Kissing happens for bonobos and chimpanzees, the closest living relatives to humans.
Bonobos engage in kissing for sexual arousal, and chimpanzees use it to determine mate suitability, taking scent and taste cues to determine compatibility. That seems to suggest that kissing is an innate human behavior, a way to assess mate suitability through detecting unpleasant scents that could indicate bad genes.
The term “French kiss” was coined by American and British servicemen in France during World War I. It seems that they noticed that French women were more open to employing the passionate technique than their American and British counterparts. Not having a term for this practice in their language, the French created galocher, and made it an official verb in 2014.
The Chinese recently invented a kissing machine for couples separated by distance. An attachment to a cellphone includes silicone lips, and sensors that mimic the sensation of two people sharing a kiss. “O, Brave new world that has such people in it!” And such gadgets, I might add.
Perhaps one of the best definitions of a kiss was given by actress Ingrid Bergman. She said: “A kiss is a lovely trick designed by nature to stop speech when words become superfluous.”
Greetings with kisses
In ancient Greece, a kiss was used as a greetings between acquaintances, and could be used as a sign of respect. Ancient Greeks had distinct social rules for where these kisses would be placed on the body, depending on status and the relationship between the two people involved. In many of Homer’s works, kissing is used to illustrate a deep bond of friendship or kinship. Often, parents were described as kissing their children, in order to show their love, and men who were close friends would also kiss.
Even today, a kiss on the cheek is the culturally accepted form of greeting in many countries. It is commonplace in parts of the Middle East and Asia, and almost ubiquitous in Latin America, and continental Europe. However, there are unwritten rules depending on where you happen to be. Exactly how many kisses are proper? And which cheek goes first? The logistics are fairly straightforward. You lean in, place your cheek against the other person then switch to the other side as many times as is required. Almost everywhere the process starts with the right cheeks first. Except for Italians who start on the left. This leads to some awkward bumping of noses when the recipient is unfamiliar with the protocol.
In France it is mostly two kisses—one on each cheek, but this varies by region, with three being standard in Provence, and four in the Loire Valley. Two is the number in most of the other European countries, except for those that require three: Belgium, Slovenia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Russia.
Having grown up in Argentina, and having spent a good amount of time dancing tango in Buenos Aires in the 1990s and 2000s, I learned how ingrained and ever present the kiss on the cheek is there. Not only do you kiss every newly introduced friend, you also kiss every professional you come in contact with—your lawyer, doctor, dentist, and travel agent. Whenever I had my nails done in Buenos Aires I would, of course, greet my manicurist with a kiss on the cheek. But while sitting, I would also receive a kiss from every customer who’d walk in and proceed to kiss everyone present. The Argentines joke about their ubiquitous kisses, saying that is why parties last into the dawn hours—which they absolutely do! The reason is that nobody wants to be the first to leave. Who wants to go around a room full of people kissing everyone goodnight?
If you failed to kiss your loved one on July 6, it’s OK, you can take the opportunity now to do so. It is perfectly alright to backtrack. You might even consider doing a kunik or a hungi just to try something new!