Kissing around the globe

Alice Forbes explores the significance of a kiss in a variety of cultures.

Illustration: Sarah Larragy

In the year 1979, the German Democratic Republic celebrated its thirtieth anniversary. While the festivities and commemorations were underway amongst politicians and public figures, an alert photographer snapped what has since become an iconic photograph of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and East German President Erich Honecker sharing a passionate “fraternal kiss”. This striking and provocative image blew up worldwide throughout the media in the short period following the event, and when the Berlin Wall was eventually torn down in 1989, it was painted on the east side of the Wall by Soviet artist Dmitri Vrubel, on what today makes up part of the famous East Side Gallery. The mural is one of the notable highlights of the gallery, and draws in a multitude of tourists and passers-by on a daily basis, from all corners of the globe, all of whom react to the mural in a different manner according to their cultural background. To some, the image is vulgar and repulsive and out of place in the public sphere. Others laugh, viewing it as an ironic twist on romance, or are confused: “is it trying to convey a point about homosexuality?” Many more see the mural of two male politicians locking lips as completely normal, and a natural display of mutual respect and cordiality. All over the world, across different cultures, kissing is generally viewed with high regard. However, this intimate method of human contact and communication is unique in its ability to provoke meaningful, yet incredibly versatile, and often contradictory reactions depending on an individual’s background.

Interestingly enough, and contrary to what many people may at first think, kissing mouth-to-mouth is not universally practiced across all cultures, a fact first noted by Charles Darwin. Among the Inuit who reside in the frosty sub-zero regions of Alaska, “eskimo kissing” replaces the conventional kind. This is a practice of rubbing ones’ noses together as a sign of affection and endearment. It is thought that the reason behind this practice is to maintain the comforting warmth and closeness of proximity while simultaneously preventing the transferral of moisture to another’s lips where it may freeze rapidly.

It is believed that the modern-day kiss as we know it first originated in India, with early Indian sculptures preserving evidence of kissing through artistic representation. The practice was originally born from the ancient custom of “sharing one another’s breath”. Nowadays however, with Hinduism – a faith that emphasises celibacy – acting as the religion of 80 percent of India’s population, a kiss, as with most forms of intimacy, is thought more appropriate to be left to the private sphere. There was public uproar when in 2007 Hollywood actor Richard Gere took actress Shilpa Shetty in his arms and planted several kisses on her cheek at an AIDS awareness event in New Delhi.

India is not the only place where more conservative views are held with regards to kissing. In Japan, public displays of affection are not looked upon favorably, and many westerners have observed that the Japanese are a good deal more modest in nature than their western counterparts, and save being squashed up against somebody on a crammed rush-hour bullet train, they tend to keep to themselves and maintain a degree of personal space. Even handshakes can often be considered too intimate among the Japanese, with a bow and nod of the head being the more culturally favorable salutation among acquaintances.

Similarly, in many Muslim countries, kissing can even be regarded as akin to having sexual relations in the open, with public kissing between men and women illegal in some strictly orthodox Muslim countries. However, it is regarded as common practice for men in Islamic regions to kiss one another on either cheek as a sign of greeting.

On the other end of the spectrum, in Mediterranean countries such as Spain, France, Italy and Greece, public kissing is regarded as totally acceptable in the romantic sense. What’s more, it is considered a standard form of greeting between friends, acquaintances and even strangers, regardless of age or gender. This most likely stems from the fact that most Mediterranean cultures are historically Catholic, where kissing is enshrined throughout religious practices. I recall paying a visit to Seville on a school exchange program in fourth year, and being slightly taken aback when, upon my arrival, I was welcomed affectionately with a kiss on each cheek from every member of my host family, and additionally, from every individual I was introduced to in the period following.

The French and the Italians are perceived to be even more severe in their displays of public affection, with the exchange of four kisses being the norm in a circumstance of salutation in areas such as Naples. Moving on from kissing as merely a gesture of greeting, France is also famous for its status as a country of romance, and as the birthplace of the “French kiss”, which was thought to have been brought to Britain and America after the Second World War by Allied soldiers who had picked up the custom while posted in France.

While being able to disassociate kissing from romance is something that those from Mediterranean cultures are evidently capable of, in contrast it is something we in Ireland, as well as those in the United Kingdom and United States, certainly struggle with. Largely arising from the explosion of romance in the film industry that western culture has a growing obsession with, a kiss now culturally marks an expression of romantic love or sexual desire. Cinematic productions such as The Notebook, Titanic and Gone with the Wind all idealise kissing as a kind of magically intense and sacred act, with the fairy-tale concept of “true love’s first kiss” instilling this mentality into those living in western culture.

It is perhaps due to this cultural emphasis on kisses of the romantic kind that there exists a certain taboo surrounding kissing in the west, and the rules that govern when a kiss is socially appropriate are very different. For example, children can kiss one another on the mouth in a friendly manner at a young age, but they would be discouraged from doing so once they reach a certain level of maturity. Similarly, it is acceptably common and even cute for small children to kiss older family members, but few Irish or British twenty-year-olds would feel comfortable with or think it appropriate to be locking lips with their middle-aged aunt.

Evidently, a kiss can express a wide variety of emotions, ranging all the way from friendly familiarity to passionate romantic love, and despite globalisation having diminished many cultural differences that previously existed across the world, it seems apparent that “when to kiss and when not to kiss” is certainly still something worth giving thought. While kissing may seem a trivial topic and irrelevant in comparison to many modern day global issues, I personally find it reassuring that, in a world progressively absorbed in materialism and technology, something as small, simple and inherently human as a kiss still plays such a large role in the majority of worldly cultures.