Sunday, May 3, 2009

STI: The pecking order

May 3, 2009


The pecking order

By Mark Featherstone 


Whenever I step into an elevator, I'm careful to say hello. There's an awkward silence if nobody's actually in the elevator, but otherwise my fellow ascenders or descenders will usually respond in kind.


Saying hello is an easy gesture. Giving a kiss is not. A peck on the cheek is a common greeting in some cultures, but virtually absent in others. And among its practitioners, there is remarkable variation. Consider:


§          North Americans - One kiss on one cheek. A quick hug is more likely. The peck can be given to very close friends and family, but is never exchanged between acquaintances or heterosexual guys (unless, as in my case, you have finally learnt that it's OK to show your father that you love him).


§          The French and Quebecois - Two kisses, one on each cheek. These are exchanged between friends and family members, and even strangers of the opposite sex when, say, introduced at a dinner hosted by common friends. Less often between guys, but by no means unheard of. (Alert! As the wife points out, in some areas of France, the obligatory number of kisses can jump to three or four.)


§          Germans - Not much kissing here. If a German has his lips moving towards your cheek, he has probably tripped. No wonder they hate the French. And vice versa.


§          The Swiss - Three kisses, one on each cheek and then back to the first. This involves a lot of coordinated head bobbing. If you're inexperienced, you risk a concussion.


§          Argentinians - The true egalitarians of the kissy greeting. Everybody, but everybody, gets a kiss.


Things work pretty smoothly if you know the expectations of the person you're greeting. But in cross-cultural settings, it can get tricky. A North American male living in France will pick up the habit of kissing on each cheek. For example, he will kiss the French hostess when arriving at a dinner party in her home. But what does he do when introduced to a North American woman at the same party? Shake hands? Kiss once? Kiss twice?


This can lead to some awkward moments, as when you decide to lean forward to give a woman a peck on the cheek, but she extends the five fingers of death into your solar plexus. Or when you commit yourself to kissing both cheeks, but she stops at one. Then, your puckered lips, carried by the momentum of the premature launch of the second kiss, go hurtling into the void above her shoulder with some chance of achieving escape velocity and orbiting the Sun.


So where do Singaporeans fit into the world's pecking order? As in all the other Asian cultures I know, Singaporeans do not normally greet with a peck on the cheek, though Malays may respectfully kiss the hand.


There are consequences to plopping a kissy Canadian into Singaporean society. A while ago, an Italian friend came to my office to bring a gift for my newborn daughter. On such a warm occasion, she and I did the natural thing (for us) and kissed on each cheek. However, my Singaporean technician was in my office at the time, and she looked like she would rather have a tooth extracted than witness this unseemly breaching of personal space.


Another time, two Chinese Singaporean students, a guy and a gal who had gained some work experience in my laboratory, brought me a little gift of appreciation. Now, I lived in France and Quebec for 26 years before moving to Singapore. On such occasions during this time, nothing would be more natural than an innocent exchange of cheek-kisses (as opposed to cheeky kisses) between a male professor and a female student.


So my reflexes kicked in and I went to give the young lady a peck. I leaned forward. She leaned back. I took one step forward. She took one step back. I raised an eyebrow. She further recoiled, her eyes now filled with something that looked exactly like horror. Being a perceptive fellow, I recognised this as a sterling opportunity to be more sensitive to the local customs, mumbled an explanation, and shook the guy's hand.


OK, so I have to learn to be a little more reserved. No point in scaring people or inviting a lawsuit. From now on, the only kisses I give will be labelled Hershey's.


Mark Featherstone is a professor in the School of Biological Sciences at Nanyang Technological University. He is a Canadian who has lived in Singapore for almost three years. He is accepting kisses.

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