Back when I was a high school student living in New Zealand, I took French. This meant a lot of rote learning irregular verbs, reading Asterix comics and giggling at the bizarre cultural habits of French people as explained in a book roughly 20 years out of date. Apparently, they kiss each other. A lot. Upon greeting and leaving a social situation, depending upon which part of France you find yourself, you can expect a lot of cheek smooching. Even between men (shock horror gasp). As New Zealanders who were likely to visit France one day we needed to be prepared. New Zealanders are used to having a sacred bubble of personal space that is very rarely popped unless times are getting sexy. We needed education on how this personal bubble would cease to exist once we wandered into Europe. We needed to expect this.
Expect this I did. From France. But I didn’t expect this from England. English people were supposed to be reserved, polite, stiff-upper-lip toting islands of manners. Instead, European traditions have crept into London at least and you can’t get through life without constantly hugging and kissing people you barely know. This threw me. I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to kiss those you’ve just met. Instead you just shake hands. After that it’s open season for greeting kisses. But some people are pretty free and easy with their kissing routine and the ‘rules’ fly out of the window.
Of course, the English are still the English. They aren’t usually big touchy-feely balls of demonstrative love and they are often reserved when it comes to getting physical with people who haven’t seen them naked. But in London now there are so many Europeans milling around that everyone feels obliged to do the kissy thing. Even if you’re just meeting a group of solely English folk without a continental European in sight, you will still be expected to cheek kiss. It will be awkward and uncomfortable for all and no one will be really quite sure what they’re doing or how close they should be or how long this ritual should last, but it will be struggled through regardless.
I obviously knew that personal space would be at a premium when I moved to London. I knew it couldn’t be so similar to New Zealand where until recently folk did most of their small talk communication with flag signals rather than having to get close enough to another person you weren’t intimate with to actually talk. Nowadays with modern technology, people just send text messages. But we all remember with fondness the good old days where you wouldn’t leave the house without a good bundle of flags portraying common everyday phrases that could be useful should you happen upon an acquaintance 20-30m away from you on the street. From memory, the most popular flags were things like this:
Meaning “may I borrow your guinea pig?”
Meaning “let’s eat spag bol every Tuesday for the rest of our natural lives”. The important everyday stuff. You get the idea.
So to have acquaintances commonly encroaching on my breathing space has been a bit of an adjustment for me. But I’ve done well. Rather than shrivel away and peck mildly I do the full double-peck. Kissing on both cheeks, with a flourish. Confuses the hell out of the English but dammit, if you’re going to force me to do this we’re going to do it fancy.
It doesn’t stop there, though. No, the English also expect a bit of kissy small talk with casual written communication. You don’t dare send a text message to an English person without an ‘x’ on the end. Unless you do actually intend to creep into their bedroom at night and slit their throat, you MUST include the ‘x’. The last time I forgot to do this (or left it out assuming it was unprofessional and inappropriate) the person built a moat around their residence within the space of a few hours, such was my level of threat and offence. A major thoroughfare had to be diverted to accommodate this moat and several foxes drowned, and that’s all on my head. I won’t make the same mistake again.
In fact it has actually come full circle. I can now tell who my closest and best friends are simply by judging how much kissing we don’t do. If they’re willing to leave me to smile, wave and say ‘hi’ from a distance occasionally without employing support of a SWAT team I can tell we’re actually quite close. We get each other.
And that’s how you know you are loved in England. Being able to endure a sniveling cold on your own, without having to share it with friends, yet not being a full on recluse. It’s a tricky tightrope to tackle, but you shall master it with perseverance.