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One Kiss or Two? The Etiquette of Social Kissing

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When I was introduced to a small group of people at a party last week, I found myself in the dilemma of whether to kiss or shake hands. Opting for the social kiss, I was successfully doing the rounds with a peck and an exchange of names when my confidence was shaken to the core. The last person I came to awkwardly stuck out their hand and I had to quickly change tack, all the while wondering if I had made a social kissing blunder.

Should I have just opted to shake hands with everyone? Was the hand-shaker in question rude not to follow suite and go with the kiss? We Brits definitely don't do halfway-house hugs or casual greetings. It's either a kiss or a firm handshake and, in the environment of the party, a handshake felt far too formal.

Social kissing is a potential minefield but, when approached with appropriate confidence and charm, it creates a welcome feeling of conviviality. At Debrett's, we are frequently asked about everyday etiquette and social kissing seems to be an area of social anxiety. There are, however, some basic rules that can help ease even the most awkward of situations.

The decision on whether to opt for a social kiss is usually dependent on situation, age, background, profession and the relationship between those involved.

As a general rule, don't kiss people you don't know unless you are introduced to them in a social environment. There are times when only a handshake is acceptable; for example between strangers in a formal situation or clients in a professional situation. Asses the circumstances carefully and if in doubt allow the other person to take the lead.

The question of whether to kiss colleagues is generally determined by profession and level of familiarity. In the environment of a business boardroom, social kissing would seem out of place, yet in the fashion world, then a kiss or two between colleagues is de rigueur.

Technique is crucial; make your actions clear to ensure that the recipient is aware of your intentions. Remember, too, that it's a two way street. The gesture of social kissing must not simply received so react appropriately and reciprocate. Equally, to reject a social kiss is the height of rudeness and will make the kisser feel extremely uncomfortable.

Usually it's right cheek first, but prepare to change direction at the last minute. There are no set rules on whether you should go for one or two kisses, except that you should be cautious with those you are less familiar with - two might seem over the top. Be clear on your decision, but if confusion occurs then take charge and make a quick decision. Humour is useful in deflecting embarrassment over the meet-in-the-middle mix-up.

Just holding cheek against cheek feels insincere, but there is a fine line between an acceptable peck and an overly affectionate smacker. Cheek skin must make brief, light contact; sound effects, air kissing and saliva traces are to be avoided at all cost.

Don't linger, and make sure that hands are kept well above the waist. Note, too, that social kissing is strictly a cheek-to-cheek activity. Kissing on the lips should be reserved for partners, lovers and romantic moments.

If you'd prefer to shake hands, be sure to hold yours out before any kissing manoeuvres begin but, if you're part of a group introduction, don't be the only non-kisser at the party...