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The Greeting Kiss: Biography of A Miami Gesture
Haptic gesture, the cheek kiss (or air kiss) is not universally practiced. Certain humans in the southwestern hemisphere—Miami and Latin America—perform its permutations. Many in Europe do it too. In Miami, the greeting is standard between males and females, and amongst females. It is rarely seen between heterosexual/normative males. These same configurations of sexes do it in New York too, maybe because of the heavy Latin and European influence, and there are certainly pockets of cheek kissers in other places within and outside the U.S. too—apparently, Tahitians do the greeting cheek kiss.
The greeting kiss is like any other gesture: repeated over and over, composite marker of a speech community, something humans just do. Yet, it’s also unlike any other: the cheeks and lips are erogenous zones, so the greeting is often thought of as more intimate than a handshake, though it is determinedly un-sexual. And like any speech act or non-verbal communication, the greeting kiss contains immense potential for misinterpretation. If you’re from Miami, chances are you’ve had that awkward moment when you go in for a kiss when first meeting someone, and are instead met with a reeling, sidelong glance of horror.
So, if a gesture is a social sculpture we make of the space between us, then the greeting kiss contains a multitude of history and culture. Where does this ritual come from?
A quick list of other forms of greeting from around the world: handshaking, hugging, fistbumping, nose-on-nose rubbing, raising your eyebrows, breath smelling, arm grabbing, double cheek kissing, waving, feet touching, sticking your tongue out, bowing, saluting, hat tipping, Namaste-ing, triple cheek kissing, etc.
Without a definitive text to turn to, the story of the greeting kiss must originate somewhere in the endlessly layered histories of romantic and parental lip kissing. There are different schools of thought regarding the development of kissing; some say it’s encoded in our genes since many apes engage in kissing rituals. Then there’s the other school, which argues that kissing is not simply natural and inevitable, but that it has changed over time and place, and means different things depending on context. Though there isn’t much cross-cultural ethnographic research into the history of kissing, it seems that even the romantic lip kiss is not universal, or even near universal today. According to the journal American Anthropologist, ethnographers working in several forager and horticultural societies in Sub-Saharan Africa, New Guinea and the Amazon reported no signs of the romantic or erotic kiss, and members of these groups said that the romantic kiss did not occur (though parental kissing was prevalent).
One of the earliest recorded kissing rituals was the act of blowing kisses in Mesopotamia, which signified “a means to gain the favor of the gods,” writes Marcel Danesi, professor of semiotics at the University of Toronto and author of The History of the Kiss! He claims that the kiss is not universal, nor is it rooted in our DNA. Instead, he locates the origin of the romantic kiss elsewhere: “It surfaced in the society of the medieval period as an act of betrayal and carnality, as opposed to the sacred act of breathing into the spouse’s mouth as an act of fidelity and spirituality.”
Though Danesi claims the first identifiable accounts of romantic lip kissing emerged in medieval poetry and prose, many other kissing acts crop up throughout history: in Ancient Vedic literature, Egyptian love poetry, and in the Old Testament. Rather than attempting to trace the origins, perhaps the important takeaway is that with the first spasms of modernism, social relations (and thus gestures) started to change, take on new meanings, and spread. There is definitely something hegemonic about the image of two lovers kissing, the implication that they are in a pure state of love.
Colonialism might have a lot to do with the development of the contemporary greeting kiss. Prevalent in Spain, the Mediterranean, and Eastern Europe, the greeting ritual seems to have traveled to the Americas during the expansion of global European empires.
“It’s really the Mediterranean countries that favor the air kiss,” says former FBI agent Joe Navarro, a Cuban American who grew up in Miami and the author of numerous books about body language. “In the UK you see very little of it. You see it in France, but not the Netherlands or Belgium, at least among strangers. You only see that with people who grew up together. When you get into Sweden or Denmark, there’s much less touching and fewer public displays of affection. So you see a similar thing in the American Midwest, which was settled by the Danes, Swedes, and so forth.” If the romantic kiss was introduced to Latin America while the less touchy cultures settled North America, perhaps this explains the geographic scattering of the greeting.
“Just go to the airport in Miami when they have shift change,” Navarro says, referring to the greeting kisses amongst staff at MIA. “You see behaviors there you don’t see anywhere else in the world.” Navarro, who came to Miami at the age of eight shortly after the Bay of Pigs invasion, spent his career in counterintelligence, developing behavioral analysis methods for the agency. This is the result of a Gordian cultural knot—a long arc of rituals moving and meshing. “Many Italians settled into Argentina, the Portuguese settled in Brazil, and there’s tremendous Spanish influence across the region. Look at the Moors who spent 500 years in Spain—Spain has many of those behaviors because of the Moorish influence,” Navarro says. (In Spain, it’s customary for men who are close friends and family to kiss on the lips, as it is in some places in the Arab world.)
It appears that kissing has a biological basis. When we kiss, “We release all these chemicals that bind us together,” the former FBI agent told me. Our lips, being highly sensitive receptors, are physiologically capable of triggering much stimulation. Navarro goes on to ask, “What’s the efficacy of the kiss? Or the abrazo?”
Part of the efficacy comes from how we’re raised. “All primates have greeting behaviors that engage the hands, arms, and face rubbing. Primates are all very tactile, which has something to do with the fact that they all spend a lot of time in child rearing. There’s a lot of intimacy between mother and child, a lot of closeness,” he says. “With the cheek-to-cheek touch, we have that magical effect we experience when our parents kiss us at a young age.”
This psychoanalytic side to kissing that’s indebted to family is important, but if we’re to map the gesture, culture is the reason we engage in kissing in the way we do.
“Lip-to-lip kissing, not necessarily the greeting, as a romantic gesture, is distinctly European,” says Dr. Pamela Geller, professor of anthropology at the University of Miami. “When it was brought into non-European places through colonialism it was regarded by natives and indigenous—for the most part—with a bit of revulsion.” The mouth, after all, is a great transmitter of disease. Perhaps part of the reason that widespread erotic kissing didn’t occur till the Middle Ages was the prevalence of poor dental care technologies and habits.
Though there are many instances of primates kissing, and though kissing rituals exist across cultures, some believe that this sets up a false epistemological claim for kissing’s naturalness. “A lot of the problems that you see in the popular literature are that evolutionary psychologists and people with a biological tilt in the research are making the argument that there’s this universal way by which we show emotion—that the sexual, romantic kiss on the lips is universal,” Geller says. A lot of these arguments rest on the idea that primates engage in kissing behaviors, but as Geller states, “Chimpanzees do it for a very different reason.”
Geller, whose research lens is feminist and queer studies, notes the fact that throughout history, these greeting rituals are imbued with relations of power.
“If you look at the classic period of Greece or Rome, greeting with kissing is more hierarchical than anything. Men of equal rank kissed on the lips, and men of lower rank kiss on the cheek,” says Geller. Other parts of the body were kissed to establish hierarchy— subjects would kiss a king’s hands or robes, or the floor beneath him.
Unlike the old kingdoms, today’s cosmopolis is a glut of cultural gestures, signals that often get crossed and misinterpreted. “It gets awkward when the situation is asymmetrical, if you’re thinking one thing and the person you’re going to greet is thinking something else,” Geller says. “As someone from New Jersey, the whole greeting kiss in Miami was a cultural shift for me. It seemed very European here. We don’t kiss on the cheek in New Jersey.”
With the greeting kiss today, placed on the cheek or sent in the air, the hierarchy is a bit more horizontal than in feudal times. In the United States, it means to say, We are of very close ilk, or, I’m from Miami. Indeed, the gesture is a source of pride for Miamians, who fancy it as a sign of intimacy over the formal, vanilla handshake. Though there is perhaps some truth in this assertion, the greeting kiss on the cheek is like any gesture: simply a code that gets reproduced, a ritual perpetuated simply because other people do it. For within that kiss on the cheek— whether it’s for your abuela or a friend’s friend you’re meeting for the first time—there lies every kiss in history.
Rob Goyanes is an essayist, poet, and critic from Miami, Florida currently living in New York. His writing has appeared in The Miami Herald, VICE, Interview, Jai Alai Magazine, Dazed Digital, Temporary Art Review, The Miami Rail, and elsewhere