International Kissing Day: French greeting makes headway in Germany

While a handshake may be the preferred manner of business greeting in Germany, the two-cheek kiss is making inroads among younger generations. But figuring out just who to turn the other cheek for remains a mystery.

When I arrived in Germany 12 years ago, one of the first things to take me by surprise was the amount of handshaking that goes on here. An appointment with my banker opened with a handshake. With the realtor, too. At work, I walked into office after office, meeting new colleagues, each of whom wanted to shake my hand. Even the yoga teacher at my first class put her hand out to introduce herself.

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Handshaking, I learned, was the formal means of greeting in Germany. As Interior Minister Thomas de Maziere wrote in his 10 treatises toward a German Leitkultur published in April, in Germany "we put out our hand as a greeting."

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Although I had rarely done it in the US —  perhaps because I am a woman or because I was seldom in a professional environment — here I am expected to keep my right hand free at all times, just in case someone new were to arrive and I would need to outstretch my arm.

Kiss-kiss: the French greeting

Once all the introductions were out of the way and I had gotten accustomed to shaking hands, however, a new problem presented itself: the social greeting. While it may have felt stiff to put out my hand in a professional situation, at a party it felt downright odd to maintain that level of formality. What do you do once you get to know people well?

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Turns out, Germans have taken a cue from the French in recent years. Instead of putting their hand out, people I know are now pulling me in close and air-kissing first my right cheek, then my left.

A bit of a shock at first - most people, myself included, consider Germans too rigid for a gesture like that - social kissing is en vogue among the younger generations.

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The kiss in art

I can see why: it surely makes more sense to share this tiny bit of affection with a close friend than to put your out hand in greeting.

At the same time, this newly adopted form of greeting has raised so many questions for me, namely centering on the question: who gets a kiss-kiss and who still gets a handshake?

With some friends, mostly Americans, the answer is clear: neither. Rolling our eyes at what we might call "putting on European airs," we greet each other with a smile and a nod and that's perfectly fine. With other friends, those from Latin America or Italy or France, I know to expect the kisses on the cheeks - it's a part of their culture. But with Germans I'm still quite unsure of myself.

The 'socialist fraternal kiss,' as seen here between German communist leader Erich Honecker and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in 1979

Know the rules before puckering up

I'm not the only one, either. When I asked my group of friends how they determined who to kiss in greeting, none of them could answer. "If you find out what the rules are, let me know," said one.

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Another said that although she decided who to kiss on a case-by-case basis, it was clearly something that you only did with good friends and only with a friend of the same sex. "I'd never greet a male friend that way," she said.

That sounded strange to me, considering my very best friend has never given me a kiss on the cheek but the husband of another friend has done so every time we run into each other.

While it's clearly not a romantic gesture, I wonder, would he greet another man that way? The East Germans did, after all, have the full lip kiss as part of their socialist-era traditions, so I know men are not limited to the handshake.

Cheek-to-cheek: Merkel (right) usually greets French leaders with a kiss

According to Rainer Wälde, an etiquette expert and author of the book, The Big Guide to Etiquette, (Der Grosse Knigge) the rules are quite simple: kisses on the cheek are limited to friends and family, people who you like or don't mind being touched by.

Never, he writes, in a professional setting, where the room for misunderstanding is too great.

That potential for misunderstanding explains why, in 2011, the German etiquette group, the Knigge Society, called for a ban on kissing in the workplace, even for those friendly two-cheek kisses.

Although the ban never went through, most etiquette guides seem to agree that the double-peck belongs only outside of the office.

So while Chancellor Angela Merkel may be greeting French President Emmanuel Macron with the customary two kisses, the Knigge Society recommends colleagues and professional peers stick to the handshake.

It is, after all, the typically German thing to do.

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Rhett... oh Rhett

In 1939, southern beauty Scarlett O'Hara (played by British actress Vivien Leigh) wrapped Rhett Butler (screen idol Clark Gable) around her finger in the movie "Gone with the Wind." But Scarlett is just using Rhett's crush on her to save her house during the US Civil War — and he catches on to her scheming just as she begins to appreciate his affection.

15 unforgettable kisses for Valentine's Day

First on-screen kiss

The short film "The Kiss" came out in 1896. In it, stage actors May Irwin and John C. Rice embrace before smooching. Under 20 seconds long, the filmed version of the closing scene of a Broadway musical was as successful as it was controversial for its realistic portrayal of an intimate moment. But it gave the new medium of cinema a great big boost.

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'Jack! I'm flying!'

Arguably the most romantic kissing scene in modern cinematic history took place on the bow of the "Titanic" between Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. The sunset kiss between characters Jack and Rose comes just ahead of the sinking of the ocean liner, giving the star-crossed lovers their first and last night together. While Rose survives, Jack freezes in the icy waters of the North Atlantic.

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Take your breath away: 'Spider-Man'

The kissing scene from the original "Spider-Man" movie (2002) looks romantic, but actor Tobey Maguire recalled it being a truly uncomfortable take: "I was hanging upside down, it was really late at night, it was raining, and the whole time I had rainwater running up my nose. Then, when Kirsten rolled back the wet mask, she cut off my air completely," he told Parade magazine in 2007.

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Perfect palace facade

The worst day of her life: on July 29, 1981, Lady Diana Spencer married Prince Charles. At least, that's what she called it 11 years after her picture-perfect "dream wedding." Diana's dress, her happy smile, the prince who looked so stressed in the midst of all the pomp and circumstance. But Diana was Charles' second choice; only later did he reveal that he had another love.

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Next generation of royals

In April 2011, Prince William, the eldest son of Diana and Charles, wed his Kate. Their marriage seems to be on firmer ground than that of his parents, though the tabloids continually speculate about its downfall at even the slightest hint of an argument.

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Unparalleled scandal on MTV

A kiss seen around the world: At the MTV Video Music Awards in 2003, Madonna planted one on Britney Spears live onstage, causing an uproar. She'd taken to the stage after Spears and Christina Aguilera had paid tribute in song and dance to the '80s diva and wanted to thank them with a kiss — one which many viewers, including Britney's ex-boyfriend Justin Timberlake, found went on a bit too long.

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Kissing the war goodbye

US sailors and marines filled New York's Times Square on August 14, 1945 after hearing that Japan had capitulated, ending World War II. Their celebration was captured on film with this iconic kiss. It's a pose repeated by tourists to this day.

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Street photography

"Baiser de l'Hôtel de Ville" (Kiss by the Hôtel de Ville) is part of a series taken in Paris by photographer Robert Doisneau in the 1950s. This one is world-famous and has been sold as a poster or postcard a million times over. Many couples have come forward to claim it is their likeness (in order to gain royalties), but Doisneau had proof that it was a pair of actors.

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Golden kiss

The most famous of Gustav Klimt's paintings comes from his so-called Golden Phase, in which he used a gold bronze, reminiscent of Christian paintings from the late Middle Ages. The works of art gain a touch of preciousness with the color, employed here in "Kiss," a quadratic 180 x 180-centimeter piece completed between 1908 and 1909.

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Brotherly love

In former Eastern Bloc nations, statesmen greeted each other with the socialist brotherly kiss. It's an intense display of body contact that is said to show a greater connection between the parties than a mere handshake, as shown here in 1979 when former head of the East German state Erich Honecker (right) received Leonid Brezhnev, general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

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Kiss the trophy

Germany became world champions in the football world for the second time on July 7, 1974 (20 years after their first championship) after a 2-1 win against the Netherlands. President Walter Scheel (left) handed the trophy over to captain Franz Beckenbauer (center). Of course, every player had to take turn carrying it; when given the chance, goalie Sepp Maier couldn't resist planting one on the cup.

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Kiss of honor

Pope John Paul II traveled all over the world. In each place he landed, he kissed the ground, whether covered in dust or asphalt or mud puddles. It was his way of honoring the place, as shown here in 1986 in Fiji. People used to joke, though, that he only kissed the ground as a show of thanks for having landed safely after a long flight.

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Animal kisses

Disney does kitsch better than anyone and in "Lady and the Tramp," a 1955 animated film about two dogs in love, the moonlight in the background and a candlelit Italian dinner set the stage for romance. A violinist begins to play, the cook sings "Bella Notte," and a choir joins in while the dogs share a side of spaghetti until suddenly — a smooch.

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Kissing war

But kissing isn't only for humans and cartoons. In the animal kingdom, there are a number of species that lock lips — and not always out of love. Often, the kiss is actually a fight between two rivals. Kissing gouramis, for example. The animals push against each other on their lips until one finally gives in and moves aside to find space elsewhere. A kissing contest, if you will.