Has there ever been a symbol of love so blissfully simple as the kiss? From iconic black-and-white movie romances to bi-curious chart-toppers to hundreds of gum and mint commercials, the kiss appears to be the globally understood way to express romantic love and affection.
But, like Drew Barrymore as Josie “Grossie” Geller in 1999’s charming and problematic Never Been Kissed, things are not always as they appear.
In fact, locking lips as a show of affection between two people may not be the universally known act of amour we believe it to be.
Love is undeniably complicated, so it stands to reason that around the globe, the methods for expressing love go well beyond the Western world’s codified kissing, hugging, and holding hands. Culture, religion, and old-fashioned personal preference play a large role in dictating how two lovebirds communicate their fondness for one another.
If you’re bold enough to take your kissing knowledge beyond spin the bottle and upside-down Spiderman, get ready for seven minutes of heavenly reading about how different cultures like to declare their romantic intentions.
Canoodling Across Cultures
The question of the kiss as a human universal was taken up in a 2015 study published in American Anthropologist. The study set out to test an oft-repeated claim that romantic kissing was an act of affection nearly all people around the world engaged in. Like a true group of professionals, the professors practiced due diligence making clear what was being examined in the study: “We defined kissing as lip-to-lip contact lasting long enough for exchange of saliva.” Or, as most in America would describe it, “reaching first base.”
So, what did these scholars of spit-swapping uncover? Likely the most surprising finding was that not only is kissing not a “human universal,” but it is actually not seen as a traditional gesture of romantic interest in most world cultures. From professors Jankowiak, Volsche, and Garcia: “The romantic/sexual kiss was present in a minority of cultures sampled.”
Another fascinating revelation of the study is that the cultures that do regularly kiss with, as the study put it, “erotic intentionality,” tend to have higher degrees of “social complexity.” The authors imply that cultures with elite classes (which covers much of Western culture) developed kissing to manage tender moments, stating, “the romantic/sexual kiss’ emergence onto the world stage may be a by-product of the rise of elite social classes that value, as a sign of social distinction, the control of emotional displays.” In short, the kiss may have more to do with decorum than desire.
For additional insight into the world of affectionate acts, Urbo spoke with a seasoned relationship expert: comedian and former Sex and the City script consultant Greg Behrendt. As the co-author behind He’s Just Not That Into You and the new How To Keep Your Marriage From Sucking, Behrendt gives his perspective on outward displays of affection in American culture, noting that much of it is what people learn from watching movies.
“We tend to be dictated to by the movies in this country,” Behrendt argues, suggesting the influence of films outweighs the impact of books or other literature.
Such a point is difficult to argue with. Americans have long found themselves wrapped up in the magic of cinematic kisses, be it learning what romance could be from Lady and the Tramp’s memorable spaghetti smooch, taking make-out advice from Sarah Michelle Gellar in Cruel Intentions, or the Peter Falk-narrated kiss that “left them all behind” in The Princess Bride.
Silver screen kisses are so celebrated that the MTV Movie Awards gave fans what they wanted back in 1992 by handing out the “Best Kiss Award;” they’ve been awarding each year’s top lip lock ever since. With all these public displays of affection projected on screens two stories high, it is no wonder people might just assume the kiss was a human universal. But with a study shattering all we know about making out, it is worth examining just how couples who don’t pucker up show their love.
When discussing alternatives to traditional romantic kissing, the American Anthropologist report explained that some cultures engage in what is known as an “Oceanic kiss”—an act of intimate face closeness where two parties enjoy each others’ musks. Historical studies of cultures in Africa, India, and elsewhere give examples of personal odor as a significant component of interactions between men and women.
While indigenous tribes may express intimacy in different ways, one other major factor that dictates public displays of affection is religion. Rabbi Mark Wildes, a New York faith leader and author, provides insight into a culture where couples kiss and engage in displays of affection, but strictly within the parameters of marriage: “In religious parts of the Jewish world, unless a man and woman are actually married to each other, the Torah, Hebrew scripture, really frowns on physical contact before marriage.”
A broad conversation is ongoing in the Jewish community about how the laws of their faith that discourage outward romantic affection match up with a contemporary culture that sees couples getting married later in life.
“People do different things,” Wildes admits. “We try not to be judgmental.” That said, cultural principles dictate much about how couples show their love for one other before entering into marriage. Wildes says, “In the very ultra-orthodox world, you’re not going to see men and women holding hands on a date.”
Wildes also emphasizes that such rules specifically apply to those who are not married and makes the point that, within marriage, displays of affection are not only permissible, but encouraged. Citing Jewish marriage tradition, Wildes says the Jewish faith sees intimate acts as something that goes beyond reproduction: “The rabbis believe that it is the responsibility of a husband to pleasure his wife.” It is a fascinating duality of the culture where the covenant of marriage can have such a dramatic effect on how the faithful will show affection.
Only a Kiss
So, some cultures don’t enjoy kissing, and some ostensibly repress kissing until marriage, but in other parts of the world, a public kiss can be seen as a form of civil disobedience, if not an outright crime. In Vienna, Austria, those caught necking on the public transit system are seen as no better than those who eat or talk loudly on cell phones and are subject to a fine.
In India, public kissing is a much more controversial issue. Some may recall when, a decade ago, Richard Gere had a warrant out for his arrest because of a few smooches he gave Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty at a fundraiser event. The question of publicly shown affection has divided those in India, fueling “Kiss of Love” demonstrations and counter-demonstrations—pretty much turning any public romantic embrace into the equivalent of holding a protest sign. India’s youth remains split on whether such restrictions should continue to exist.
Similarly, countries in the Middle East from Kuwait to the UAE have varying bans on public displays of affection. Saudi Arabia recently had its first public movie theater screening in 35 years with a showing of the film Black Panther, but they cut the film’s kiss scene between Chadwick Boseman and Lupita Nyong’o.
Of course, there is a difference between cultures that don’t kiss, like the groups mentioned in the American Anthropologist report, and those that restrict kissing under specific circumstances. Behrendt parses out the complexity for Americans trying to comprehend cultures that don’t have our abundance of public affection: “It is really hard when you are not raised in someone’s world to have any understanding of it.”
Saudi Arabia Breaks 35 Year Cinema Ban With Historic 'Black Panther' Screening pic.twitter.com/qh3t7YQTvV
— MoorInfo (@MoorInformation) April 19, 2018
Wildes, speaking from his experience in a traditional Jewish environment, says he sees the modesty practiced in his community as ultimately something positive. “Flaunting how beautiful your significant other is and how connected you are with them often brings out negative vibes in other people,” Wildes observes. “It creates jealousy in the community.”
Wearing Your Heart on Your Sleeve (Literally)
Like most things, public displays of affection are embraced or downplayed depending on the country and culture. One particularly unique means of coupling up comes from South Korea, where public kissing or other romantically suggestive acts are generally frowned upon.
However, that doesn’t mean the youth there don’t want the world to know they are in love: quite the opposite, in fact. A common trend among South Korea’s image-conscious millennials is to showcase their relationship status via matching couple outfits. Taking the idea of couples’ Halloween costumes to an entirely new level, these lovestruck youths will go to extraordinary lengths to make sure they are as matchy-matchy as possible. Social media and celebrity adoption of the trend has made these cute couples even more adorable to onlookers.
“I love this,” declares Behrendt on the Korean couple matching trend. For him, the practice speaks to the uniqueness of relationships: “Your chemistry with another human being is its own thing. The only person who will ever understand it is the two of you.”
Behrendt reveals from his own relationship that he would notice his wife would bring him food items from the grocery store from time to time, and he would wonder, “Why is she always buying me food?” before realizing that was one of her ways of expressing affection toward him.
Such practices call to mind the culinary affection shown in Japan, where wives (as well as mothers) are known to put their spousal or maternal love into an obento box—meticulously crafted lunches of healthy food presented in an aesthetically pleasing manner. While many parents like to use the practice to get their children to eat healthy, it is also a popular way for spouses to communicate their love to one another.
Ultimately, while the obento boxes and matching outfits have a certain public quality to them, Behrendt’s statement about the deeply personal nature of such expressions rings true: “Anybody weighing in on your relationship based on what they think they know about you is unimportant.”
A Modesty Proposal
Whereas communities that don’t take part in the romantic/intimate kiss don’t need to grapple with it as a public display of affection, other cultures can sometimes struggle with what social codes dictate about showing love in public. America, in particular, seems perpetually at odds with itself over questions of modesty and how much of people’s private lives should be in full public view.
Wildes says he thinks “there’s been a dramatic shift in public displays of affection,” and he doesn’t view the shift positively. He argues that the more that couples kiss and make out and become “familiar” with each other in public, the harder it becomes to develop a strong romantic foundation. “I’ve been reaching out to millennials for the last twenty years,” Wildes shares, “and I have to tell you that people are really struggling to build sustainable relationships.”
He’s not totally wrong—a Harvard study revealed that young adults and teens greatly overestimate “hook-up” culture. It stated that 85 percent of young people would be more interested in hanging out with friends or spending time in a committed relationship than they would be in casual hook-ups.
Looking at the pendulum of public affection, Behrendt posits that things could be swinging back to modesty after years of capturing intimate moments with mobile phones. As he puts it: “I think we’re headed back to prudishness. I think we saw one too many d*** pics and thought ‘Nah, that’s enough.’” He explains that his teenage daughters have very specific rules for how they currently flirt with boys via their phones and social media.
Behrendt considers the benefits of those cultures around the world that preach restraint over impulse: “I think we learn way too late in life, it’s not ‘the thing’ we like. It’s the leading up to the thing, then not getting the thing, then finally getting the thing.” He supposes those who find cultural restrictions in their lives may enjoy a more vigorous pursuit than others. “The chase and how hard it is to get it. That’s what we want.”
Love is love is love.
Even though cultures all over the world get along fine without kissing, it would be pretty surreal to suddenly say au revoir to the romantic kiss in this country. After all, where would sports games be without the ubiquitous kiss cam? Plus, same-sex kisses on television over the past decades helped break new ground when it came to public displays of non-heterosexual affection. The challenges still faced by same-sex couples (only very recently getting their fifteen minutes on stadium jumbotrons) are exactly the kind of public displays of affection Behrendt actively encourages. “I do love seeing two men or two women hold hands,” he says. “If that was forbidden for you, please: Kiss. Hold hands. Enjoy it.”
With American culture so wrapped up in the significance of the romantic kiss, it may still stun some that kissing is not a thing in many other cultures around the world. But this lack of face-to-face time does not necessarily mean there is no attraction. As Jankowiak, Volsche, and Garcia wrote on Sapiens.org: “In any case, the fact that these cultures don’t kiss romantically does not mean they are prudish: The Mehinaku, who live in Brazil, for example, are known to nibble at eyebrows during sex.”
No matter the culture or religion or social complexity of humans, what does seem ubiquitous is the need and desire for love and companionship. Another human universal need Behrendt brings up in conjunction with love is safety. He argues the two feelings are intimately intertwined and that, in our culture, a kiss is a way for two people to feel safe with each other in a sometimes frightening world: “We feel safe when we are in love.” In that context, he argues people should be able to show affection wherever, whenever, so as to not be denied that feeling of security.
Even if a kiss doesn’t ring true around the world, that feeling of safety with another person is worth infinitely more than all the kisses Hollywood can come up with.