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Office kissing etiquette

Laura Johnson

For media types it's air kisses, for Europeans it's kisses on the cheek and for the reserved Brits it's still the formal handshake. Laura Johnson discusses office kissing etiquette in this week's Office Life Blog

Is a double air kiss to greet a business acquaintance really any different to a handshake nowadays? Why not embrace a colleague to celebrate the completion of a monumental business deal? Over the years, the Gallic penchant for greeting all and sundry with an enthusiastically pursed pout has spread from the continent into boardrooms across the UK. But while some are naturals when it comes to the etiquette of the office kiss, others feel coerced into making what they feel are inappropriate PDAs (that’s public displays of affection).

Promiscuous hugging and air-kissing used to be the domain of celebrities and media luvvies. Now it's something we're all exposed to. Even in the workplace. But it’s not something we’re all naturally comfortable with. In reality, many of us flounder as we try to read our target's expectations. Are they inviting a kiss? Would a handshake seem too stuffy? One peck on the cheek or two? Or even three? Should a warm embrace follow the kiss? Or would eye contact and a casual nod of the head suffice? 

Some are blaming the feminisation of workplace cultures for the growing popularity of ‘la bise’ (that’s French for ‘cheek kissing’) as a business gesture. Whether this is true or not is questionable but it’s undeniable that gender is a big factor in any debate about touchy-feely office behaviour. UK business etiquette has not yet evolved to the extent that men kiss each other at the start of a meeting (except perhaps when in the company of Russian oligarchs). A man enters a meeting room to the predictability of an outstretched hand. On the other hand, the entrance of a woman sees everyone shifting uncomfortably. Not because she is not welcome or hasn’t earned her place at the table, but because menfolk can’t quite fathom how to greet her. Handshake or kiss? Women feel equally awkward. Not only about the prospect of bashing noses with their boss but because they don't want to be treated differently in the boardroom just because they lack a Y in their chromosome bundle. 

What do you do? Consult the famous Debrett’s guide to traditional British etiquette and you’ll read that 'social kissing should be saved for very close or longstanding clients and colleagues.' It’s a sensible distinction but one that is easily misconstrued. Conforming to this rule risks making male and female co-workers feel discriminated against as they over-analyse why they were snubbed when the kisses were being dished out. Is a kiss for one, a handshake for another, an exhibition of favouritism? Perhaps a subliminal sign of what should be expected in the next promotion round? Maybe even enough to provoke rumours of a clandestine office romance? 

To address the ambiguity of office kissing etiquette, should businesses considering adding an ‘employee greetings guide’ to their list of company policies? The German etiquette group, the Knigge Society, would definitely condone such a formal stand against office intimacy. Back in 2011, the group called for a ban on work colleagues kissing in the office, labelling pecking a co-worker on the cheek ‘an act of terror’. But stifling such warm human interaction could be deemed as damaging to workplace dynamics. Afterall, an excited embrace between colleagues can be an incredibly natural and satisfying way to mark the successful closure of a challenging business deal. 

There will be those who fall at the extreme ends of the scale when it comes to what’s acceptable office behaviour, but for most of us, our colleagues are friends so some level of intimacy definitely has a place in the workplace. A few things, however, are never acceptable, namely:

• Aiming for the lips. Unless you bear a striking resemblance to Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie, it will be completely unwelcome and always inappropriate.

• Prolonged physical contact. The office kiss should be directed away from the face of the recipient into the air (hence air-kissing). After hugs should be offered with caution.

• Three kisses = one too many. One kiss is acceptable, two have come to be expected but a third is just an unnecessary cause of nose bashing and awkwardness.

The best way to navigate an office kiss dilemma is to engage your emotional intelligence, respect personal boundaries and keep things fair and equal. Sorted? Not quite. There’s also the thorny issue of the ‘x’ at the end of emails to contend with. A kiss at the end of an all user email moaning about the mountain of dirty coffee cups in the kitchen? Now that’s surely a mwah too far.


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