Dutch kiss inflation
“In Holland, we do three.”
Furthermore, kissing thrice is not an historically Dutch practice. According to Kohnstamm, the custom is relatively recent to The Netherlands. The tradition comes from the French and Belgian countryside and arrived in the middle and northern provinces of Holland in the 1980s. Until then a handshake or one kiss was the social norm. The Dutch, he says, were more socially reserved like their German neighbours. Kohnstamm likens the practice to an infection contaminating his country. Although, ironically, the cheeky air-kisses—even given three at a time—are less likely to spread actual germs than a handshake.
There is also an element of class distinction in the quantity of kisses bestowed at greeting. The French and Belgian upper classes kiss only twice, as do the Parisians, and the Dutch Royal circle. So why should the masses be forced to submit to three?
Kohnstamm resents the obligation. He argues that a greeting ought to allow one to differentiate between degrees of intimacy in a relationship. The option of giving one kiss or two, or even a handshake, instead of the mechanical head-jerking triplet, offers greater range of intimate expression.
Kohnstamm calls it one the great tragedies of his life that his wife is not fully on-board with his agenda and it irks him to no end that she has been known to bestow the same number of kisses on her own children as on casual acquaintances at social gatherings. Birthday parties and New Year’s Day celebrations can be particularly burdensome for reluctant kissers when rounds of three-kisses are de rigueur.
So what can you do if you find all this kissing excessive? One of my friends—a Venezuelan-born Dutch transplant—makes a b-line for the WC to avoid certain people. Very close friends, though, she’ll kiss only once, but on the lips. All of this begs the question, what is the purpose of a greeting? Is it to reinforce the status of a relationship and map out a hierarchy of intimacy? Or is it to dispel boundaries between individuals in a spirit of egalitarianism? Should strangers be welcomed in a like manner as friends? Or is indiscriminate social kissing the domain of youth and akin to promiscuity?
I suppose how you answer these questions determines the practice you espouse. Kohnstamm proposes, only half-jokingly, that the European Union Parliament ought to consider the matter. If Brussels were to decree on kissing protocol perhaps international (and even interpersonal) awkwardness could be dispelled. In state diplomacy, of course, the choreography of greeting is even more weighted. Kohnstamm noted an unhappy incident when German Chancellor Angela Merkel was welcomed, inappropriately for a reserved German, with three kisses by Dutch Prime Minister Jon Peter Balkenende.
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