Dutch kiss inflation

Dutch kiss inflation

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“In Holland, we do three.”

Upon first arriving in The Netherlands, I found myself face-to-face with a woman I had a genuine desire to greet warmly.  We had corresponded for months via email and we both felt the excitement of witnessing a person, who moments before had been only a name, materialise in the flesh. Sensing that a handshake would be inadequate for the occasion, I leaned in for a kiss on the right cheek. I hesitated barely a moment before “muh”-ing the left too (we were in Europe, after all). As I started to draw away, she pulled me back for a third peck and whispered in my ear, “In Holland, we do three.” 
 Oh. How quaint! How culturally specific! What a lot of work! I felt that rush of gratification that comes with initiation into a foreign culture. Now I knew something about the Dutch. Or so I thought until I met Dolph Kohnstamm. A retired professor of psychology (and friend of my late step-father), Kohnstamm is profoundly irritated that foreigners like myself are taught that the Dutch have a three-kiss policy. A few years ago he began a campaign and launched a Web site (www.zoenbutton.nl) against the three-kiss greeting. My curiosity was piqued. What kind of curmudgeon could possibly be against kissing—and why?
What bothers Kohnstamm most is the “automatism” of the ritual. He finds the practice leaves no room for a conscious expression of affection. “Originally, the kiss was an act of love,” he says. “Social kissing should still have something of affection in it and when it becomes purely automatic, it is devalued.”

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.

In Holland, fortunately for those in Kohnstamm’s camp, the kissing tide may be turning from three to one. There are reports from Belgium that the young are exchanging only one these days, while the elderly still do three. Of course, this can cause some generational confusion and dismay, as when a boy kisses his grandmother once and leaves her expecting more. It’s hard to say whether the popularity of Kohnstamm’s Web site has been a cause, or an effect, of the groundswell against the social practice. Kohnstamm is totally sold out of the lapel buttons—designed by his daughter and distributed on his site—that specify the wearer’s greeting preferences (eg. “I kiss 1X” or “I kiss 2X or “I give you a hand.”) Anti-three kiss posters may still be downloaded from www.zoenbutton.nl for free. 
But the last time I said goodbye to Dolph Kohnstamm (who along with his wife, Rita, had been an extremely gracious and charming host during my visits to Amsterdam), I unexpectedly found myself the recipient of two kisses. I knew that this was a conscious choice—a clear signal of genuine affection. And I felt deeply honoured. 
Jody Sperling / Expatica
Reprinted with permission of www.janera.com
A native New Yorker, Jody Sperling is a dancer, choreographer, dance scholar and the founder/Artistic Director of Time Lapse Dance. This February she travelled to The Netherlands to mount excerpts from her choreographic work Roman Sketches on Introdans, one of Holland's oldest and most renowned dance companies.
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