"Irish" Greetings, or Unwelcome Social Kissing, Vol. 18, Issue 36

Dear Etiquetteer:

I have recently become friendly with a gentleman who is a bit older than me and is bartender at a restaurant near where I work. I tend to go every Friday and I see him every time, but he is one of the best bartenders I have ever had. Very professional, polite, and knows wine and beer well. He also gives me free chowder and desserts sometimes. I would say we are friends or on that level. We sometimes chat in between the slow times and busy times. Since I have been going to the same spot, and have the same drink, the bartender and I have become friendly but on a professional yet casual level. We talk about how each of our families are, weekend plans, etc. As a nice gesture I mentioned how we should grab coffee sometime just to chat and hang out like any normal person would do.

So that time of grabbing coffee came and things kind of took a turn. When I entered the coffee shop he greeted me with a handshake like he always does, and gave me a kiss on the cheek. Now he does not know that I have a boyfriend, but I did mention that I did several times while we were talking. Just to make sure there was no confusion. I did not tell him prior to this coffee hang out only because I felt that was more on the personal level and I do not share that information with strangers. I find I need to get to know them a little better before sharing more personal information. Regardless, I was so taken back by this kiss on the cheek that I had to clear the air and ask if this was a typical Irish greeting since he is from Ireland and goes back and forth a lot or if this was something else. He said it was just a greeting but then I said again “Well I am dating someone” and it was fine from there.

When it was time to leave he did it again! So I ask you, is this normal or an Irish custom to kiss someone on the cheek every time you greet them or say goodbye? How would one handle this? I don't want to lose him as a friend or have the dynamic change just because I have a boyfriend but how do you handle something like this?

Thank you!

Dear Greeted:

There are so many interesting dynamics in play in your situation: customer/employee, female/male, younger/older. Your Irish Bartender’s professional rapport led you to initiate a personal friendship, which is perfectly fine. A friendship outside the workplace (in this case, his workplace, the bar), does allow people to relax and reveal more of themselves than they might in the workplace. Your Irish Bartender’s personality, if not cultural tradition, expresses friendship in a physical way that it doesn’t when he’s behind the bar. Obviously you weren’t expecting that. Etiquetteer doesn’t find anyone at fault here; let’s figure out a way to keep you comfortable while nurturing a new friendship.

Many old customs are being reevaluated in the #MeToo era, including social kissing. While social kissing has been going on forever and should in no way compromise romantic relationships*, the old rule is that a gentleman never forces his attentions on a lady. If a lady doesn’t want to be kissed, that should be the end of it. (Many women object to social-type kissing in professional settings, especially when initiated by men**. And they’re speaking up. If we’re gonna treat everyone in the workplace equally, then nobody gets kissed, or everybody does. And since male-male social kissing is not the norm in American culture, then we know exactly how that’s gonna play out in the workplace***.)

The time-honored emergency solution to deflect an unwanted kiss is to avert one’s face so that the kisser ends up kissing the side of one’s head. Once, as a result of this method, Etiquetteer ended up kissing someone’s ear. That definitely sends a message to knock off the kissing! Etiquetteer has also known ladies who “head one off at the pass” by taking a step back and offering a Strong Forthright Handshake. (Ladies - and gentlemen - you are invited to share your own tips for avoiding unwanted embraces by emailing Etiquetteer.)

You mentioned this to the Irish Bartender twice now at your first coffee meetup, and Etiquetteer would encourage you to give him one more meetup to see if he’s paying attention to your aversion. If he isn’t, offer him your ear (no, Etiquetteer is not kidding) or the Strong Forthright Handshake (you need to be standing for that) and see if he gets the message. If he does, great, but remain vigilant at subsequent one-on-ones. If not, you can make the choice of telling him kindly “I know you’re just being friendly and I am enjoying getting to know you as a friend, but I’m just not comfortable with social kissing,” reverting to your professional relationship at the bar, or seeing him on a friendly basis in a group setting with other friends of yours (and perhaps your boyfriend).

Etiquetteer wishes you and your Irish Bartender Friend a successful and strong friendship based on respect for personal boundaries.

One last note: people, if you are going to kiss socially, please do so silently. Making that mwah mwah sound is Just Not Perfectly Proper. Mercy goodness, if they’re doing it on Real Housewives of South Boston it couldn't possibly be Perfectly Proper!


*Whereas a kiss on the lips is too intimate for casual social kissing. President Jimmy Carter famously broke protocol and kissed Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother on the lips. She remarked later that “Nobody has done that since my husband died.” Her remark was given in such a way to show that she was not eager for a repeat.

**And sometimes men are, too. Ask a Manager offers advice to a male manager disturbed about colleagues greeting his male staffer with a handshake and his female staffer with a two-cheek kiss.

***That said, Etiquetteer initiated a lot of two-cheek kissing (of ladies) in the workplace Back in the Day, especially when working in the performing arts, where (it could be argued) it’s more usual. Indeed, it was while working at a ballet company that the balletomanes taught Etiquetteer the difference between the French method of cheek kissing (two kisses, left then right) and the Italian method (three kisses, left right left). But, as Edith Wharton used to say, “Autre temps, autre moeurs.”