The Rules of Engagement


“Ah, Jonesy, this is Susie,” said Lawrence, “Susie, Jonesy.” Within a second, the following thoughts had flashed through my mind: do we shake hands, kiss or embrace? I’ve never met the lady so perhaps a firm handshake is appropriate? Then again, this is a social setting and a handshake could be construed as too formal, even offensive. But if I opt for the cheek-kiss, how many? And do I air-kiss or actually make lip-to-cheek contact? Golly! What to do!?

My body had already decided. I proffered my hand. Susie took it. We began to shake; all very well and civilised. A wave of relief washed over me in an awesome way.

And then it happened.

Susie pulled me towards her with surprising vigour, causing me to stumble over my own foot, forcing me to balance in an awkward crossed-leg position reminiscent of a small child desperate to visit the toilet. She initiated a devastatingly accurate air-kiss to my right cheek: “mwah!” She must be a media professional. She’s going for the double air-kiss. Brace yourself, man! After the first fumbled encounter and having regained my posture and composure, I motioned to “mwah” her other cheek to prove that despite my initial inelegance, I really am a debonair gentleman. But Susie had other plans. She had only intended to greet me with a single kiss and rather than moving her head aside to receive the second pout, she turned to face me directly as I sloped eagerly towards her.

Our lips locked.

Time stood still, a Matrix-like freeze-frame. The music came to a scratching halt. Tumbleweeds blew in icy gales across silent, barren landscapes, forever shrouded in darkness. Far from the soundtrack of Je t’aime that one might imagine under such circumstances; cue the stabbing strings of the Psycho shower scene. Eyes widened in terror. Like James Stewart in Vertigo, I felt as if I was plummeting into a spinning warp of despair.

Time regained pace with a shocking jolt; our noses bumped in the confusion as we recoiled in horror, a mass of blonde hair lashed out from Susie’s head like Medussa fending off Perseus, whipping me with Pantene-scented serpents. Lurching back, I stepped on Lawrence’s foot, who in turn stumbled backwards into an innocent passerby whose drink was spilt all over the floor. Nervous laughter was heard from all around, though from whom I do not know. Not from the chap with the spilt drink, not from the hobbling Lawrence, and certainly not from me.

“Oh gosh, sorry! I’m so sorry!” is all I could say. Susie stared at me blankly, shocked, trying to comprehend what had just happened. Her husband, who had been standing next to us throughout this entire debacle, also stared at me. I glanced at his knuckles and they were white with rage. “Are you always this friendly? You didn’t even ask for my phone number!” Susie remarked. A good response. Better than a slap, certainly. We all broke into polite laughter, except for her husband who was presumably now fantasising about the most painful way to insert a broken beer bottle into my face. I slunk away to a darkened corner like the vampire from Nosferatu as Susie shot me a parting glance from across the room. Don’t ever come near me again, it said.

In my sordid corner of desolation, observing Lawrence limping around the room like Keyser Söze, I got to thinking about this whole male-female greeting malarkey. When a man greets another man, it’s a simple affair. A firm handshake is all that’s required. But when it comes to men greeting women, suddenly things fall apart; does one kiss, shake hands, embrace or simply nod? Is it acceptable to ‘cheek-kiss’ a business acquaintance? And what about meeting someone for the first time? Good grief, this is a mine field!

I couldn’t count the number of times that I have motioned to shake hands with a lady only for her to sidestep my protruding arm to execute a single or double cheek-kiss, leaving my extended hand dangling in the ether, not too far from her posterior. To a casual observer, it may look as if I am about to grope her. Then you have the infuriatingly vague rules about the one-kiss or two-kiss approach, as happened with Susie. Not to mention the question of whether one actually makes lip-to-cheek contact or simply pouts into the air. Combine the mistaken lip-lock with an erroneously extended hand at the posterior and you have grounds for sexual harassment! Whatever happened to the old fashioned hand-kiss? That appears to have disappeared at the turn of the last century to be replaced by these dastardly European double cheek-kisses. Some guidelines are called for. Where is the British Standards Institute when you need them?

In the absence of any form of coherent advice on this subject, I thought I would invent some guidelines of my own. The Arbuturian Guide to Greeting, if you like. In a nutshell, to use that ghastly cliché (admittedly, I’m too lazy to think of an alternative): a handshake should be offered when meeting someone for the first time, be it a business or social setting. Call me stuffy, call me old fashioned, but that’s always my preference. For encounters with more familiar people, a double cheek-kiss is acceptable. The better you know someone, the more lip-to-cheek contact one is allowed to make. If you don’t know them at all but still use a cheek-kiss as the greeting, make sure it’s an air-kiss. No lip contact should be used in this instance. The single cheek-kiss, I’ve been informed, is actually more intimate than the double kiss, as it suggests familiarity. Reserve this for good friends and family members. But the default position with regards to kisses should always be the double; this has become an accepted social standard in Blighty, from what I can tell. And God help you if you meet a French or Italian native. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many kisses to use and in what order. If in doubt, run.

So, a final plea to all women out there who may have the misfortune of meeting me in the near to distant future; if I offer my hand, just shake it. If we go for the air-kiss, let’s do the double. And if things go horribly wrong and we accidentally lock lips, well, don’t mistake that for a sign of affection. I am not that friendly. And I don’t want your phone number.



  1. This was hysterical, I like your sense of humour. I’ve had this experience with an old friend of mine – we laughed off and ignored each other for awhile afterwards…mmm.

    Social greetings can be confusing. I think for certain cultures, its very kissy-kissy, others may seem cold but I think its the norm. In business situations, a handshake is perfectly acceptable. It’s in social events where things get murky. My rule is, if I meet someone for the first time – a simple nod or wave of the hand with a big smile ‘Hello’ is fine. I think when a man meets a lady for the first time, if you stick with that rule you’re fine, unless she offers her hand first. If you do insist on a handshake though, make sure its a damn good strong one, nothing worse that a bloke with a limp handshake. Gosh, I could waffle on this all day! Don’t get me started on the Swiss who insist on three kisses…I always get caught out!

    Thanks for an entertaining topic!

  2. As an adendum, American social graces (I know, you’d think it’s an oxymoron) are even more confusing. They have the ‘hug’. On more than one occasion, a lady has motioned for the cheek and then reached further still, for an embrace. Still thinking it’s simply a gesture for a cheek kiss, this over-reach has resulted in me kissing their ear. Or, worse, with an air kiss, made a lip-smacking sound right by their lughole which must have sounded like a thunder clap. As you can imagine, neither of these ladies has shown much affection for me since.

  3. In these times of worrying communicable diseases and in the wake of the recent swine flu epidemic, perhaps a simple, oriental style bow would be safer and avoid all forms of physical contact.

    Actually that was a joke but now it reminds me of a conversation I had with a hygienist the other day who was telling me how many urinary infections were found on a sample of peanuts from the bar in a hotel lounge. I think it was 7… I mean, there you are chatting with some colleagues after a long day at the office and in walks a group with a few new faces and some familiar ones, who decide it’s introduction time. Hand shaking, cheek pressing (faces that is, not the bottom groping that Jonesy refers to), air kissing over with and there you are, contaminated with at least a dozen new bacteria carried in from the bus, the underground and the street…

    What’s a chap to do then?

    Should public houses all have the little antiseptic dispensers placed alongside the dish of peanuts, or at the entrance to the bar perhaps?

    I think I’ll go for the oriental bow on the next occasion and see whether that works, although with my luck it may end with an accidental head butt and concussion for a week after falling backwards and landing in the peanut dish.

    Keep up the good work Jonesy!

Leave A Reply