Saturday, 23 October 2010

Affectionate customs of the English

Desiderius Erasmus, 1499:

Letter to Fausto Andrelini: “Here are girls with angels' faces, so kind and obliging that you would prefer them to all your muses. Besides, there is a custom here never to be sufficiently commended. Wherever you come you are received with a kiss by all; you take your leave, you are dismissed with kisses; you return, kisses are repeated. They come to visit you: kisses again; they leave you: you kiss them all round. Should they meet you anywhere, kisses in abundance; in fine, wherever you move there is nothing but kisses.”

Since I got the above translation from Wikipedia it was necessary to check by finding the original Latin; my Latin is too rusty to translate it myself but I can at least say the above translation is reasonable. And this is a famous passage.

Nam ut e plurimis unum quiddam attingam, sunt hic nymphae divinis vultibus, blandae, faciles, et quas tu tuis camenis facile anteponas. Est praeterea mos nunquam satis laudatus. Sive quo venis, omnium osculis exciperis; sive discedis aliquo, osculis dimitteris; redis, redduntur suavia; venitur ad te, propinantur suavia; disceditur abs te, dividuntur basia; occurritur alicubi, basiatur affatim; denique quocunque te moves, suaviorum plena sunt omnia.

It's certainly taken me a very, very long time to get my head even partly around the practice of touching cheeks as though to kiss and pointing your lips the other way. To me it just seemed bizarre and insulting; if you are fond of someone why would you not kiss them? If the person is a cousin or a friend of the family older than yourself, then you kiss them on the cheek; immediate family get a peck on the lips. With personal friends it varies, but they get a sincere hug, with or without a kiss, but probably with. For a person you are sleeping with, not to greet them with a peck on the lips would be downright insulting, as though you were ashamed of the relationship, unless it is of very long standing and known to all, in which case it's not necessary. Colleagues and formal relationships mean some combination of handshakes or verbal greetings. I've eventually managed to accommodate the cheek-to-cheek touch into my repertoire as a friendly greeting, but it still isn't wholly natural. It feels as though it should be for someone I'm only pretending to like, or someone I am supposed to pretend not to like; or someone I would like to like, but I know doesn't want my affection.

Nowadays I'm just confused; I do the cheek-touch now, but I'm completely random about how many, and all the borders are muddled.

I think the customs of my family, before we had to accommodate ourselves with the big city, would have been perfectly recognisable to Erasmus.

9 comments:

ghost said...

I have two problems with this. One is that it doesn't seem to be physically possible for two people to kiss each other on the cheek at the same time - you have to take turns. Yet the timing of the way people usually kiss in Ceroc and Tango doesn't easily allow for this.

To further confuse matters, Cerocers kiss then hug, whereas Tango dancers kiss then kiss (both sides). After a good night's dancing when I'm a bit dazed, I often get mixed up which I'm supposed to be doing which led to one lady being inadvertently kissed on the lips - after the first kiss she went to hug, I went to kiss her other check and we kinda met in the middle - opps.

Ireland's much easier, there's no rushing - hugs are meant to be savoured.

msHedgehog said...

This is from my point of view as a woman. I don't expect males to return the kiss on the cheek unless they are in the 'close or immediate family' category. That's not how it works. I do expect them to return the hug, though.

ghost said...

Depends on the woman - it's not unusual for women to either offer their cheek or indeed tap their cheek with their finger to indicate they rather do want to be kissed.

My general feeling though is that dancers have a different set of "rules", they're just not all quite sure what they are.....

Tangocommuter said...

What a charming quote! You don't mention what country Erasmus was writing about, so I checked him out in Wikipedia: he was in Cambridge that year. Wonderful! & I'd trust the translation if only because the English style suggests an era when Latin was read more commonly.

If you get into a real hug your lips are hardly in a position to kiss anything but the air, or your companion's ear. I'm not sure when the 'cheek to cheek' greeting (it isn't a kiss) entered the UK: I suspect that until the 1960s a firm handshake was the only acceptable greeting, and that c2c crept in from France around that time. & even in France it's variable: depending on local customs three- and even five-point greetings are current. More research on the kiss as social greeting is needed.

Failing the simplicity of Argentina where one kiss, on the right, goes to everyone you know, a good hug is almost as good as it gets. Cheek contact + air kiss, I agree, is slightly bizarre. But a peck on the lips isn't altogether unknown in the tango world and it's very charming: there's a childlike innocent trust about it. I guess it depends on how people think about each other.

Tibetans greet each other by touching foreheads.

& I've never encountered ladies who point to where they'd like to be kissed! (For some reason I thought of Gulliver's Travels. Is it Laputa where the men are so engrossed in thought they need servants to point out someone who wants to talk to them?)

msHedgehog said...

Yes, he spent quite a lot of his life in England - he stayed, among others, with Thomas More - I forget whether More was at that time Lord Chancellor, but at any rate now a Saint to Roman Catholics.

What I want to say is that these 'cultural' traits people think of as deep and immutable may be very local and temporary, or even quite imaginary; at many times people have thought of the English as far less formal, and more physically affectionate, than other nations.

msHedgehog said...

Oh yes, and the Maori touch noses, indeed many Pacific islanders do so - I find that very nice, I was taught it by my mother when little.

ghost said...

"Oh yes, and the Maori touch noses, indeed many Pacific islanders do so - I find that very nice, I was taught it by my mother when little."

I like it too and sometimes do that while dancing Ceroc with good friends.

Romney said...

When my boy is asked to kiss someone he offers the top of his head to them. Sometimes he headbutts them in enthusiasm. Probably not a good idea if you're on the dancefloor.

londontango said...

Americans are generally not very kissy huggy, but my family is Hungarian and we always hugged and kissed each other when we saw people and when we parted (as you never know when you will see the person again). There was no rule about where you kissed (lips or cheek) or if you hugged first. Though I think we generally hugged first and kissed each other on the cheek after. This wasn't limited to family members, and children always kissed their elders. At the Hungarian church, everyone greeted each other this way. At the American church I went to, it was a bit more restrained.

I think how you greet a person is a personal choice and sometimes a cultural one. When in Rome... Americans like a good handshake and I still offer my hand when being introduced to someone I don't know.

I like to hug and kiss people I like, but sometimes I don't want to mess up my make-up. Women air kiss mainly not to mess up their hair and make-up after perhaps spending hours on themselves trying to look good. I am happy to go cheek to cheek with friends with a kissy noise at the milongas. The fake air stuff with strangers doesn't do it for me. I always bring a make-up bag with me or have lippie in my handbag. I never heard of a guy complaining that he had lipstick on his cheek.

A lovely Tango embrace is one that I am willing to share with certain strangers and is probably the longest hug you can get with someone you have never met before.

I make my own rules! :-)