As  if there wasn't enough awkwardness around social kissing, now we have swine flu to worry about. Fortunately some of us far-sighted pundits addressed this burning dinner-party issue the last time a global pandemic seemed imminent. My conclusion back then was that, useful as the ritual might be for enabling members of the opposite sex to immunize themselves against desire (while signaling restraint!), a pandemic would shut it down. Which would be a shame:

What most of us overlook in connection with social kissing is its role as a social safety valve. Think of it as regulated infidelity -- kind of like bundling among the Puritans, except designed to inoculate against courtship rather than promote it. Humans weren't made to spend this much time in the company of members of the opposite sex who aren't our spouses, who get dolled up before coming to the office, and who inevitably develop some level of intimacy with us. People need some socially sanctioned system of building immunity toward one another.

An organized system of mortifying the flesh, in other words, may be the price we pay for wanting to live in a gender-neutral society without losing sight of anybody's gender. Compared with, say, hand-kissing, the current convention is also a way for men to acknowledge that they accept women as equals and are willing to live in the resulting more feminized world .

If we could remove the unpredictability -- does she want me to plant an actual kiss? where do my hands go? -- everyone would be happier. So let's just all agree that unless we really know each other we're going to touch cheeks and be done with it. Anyone who objects should make like an economist friend of mine who, when faced with an unwanted kiss, thrusts out her hand preemptively. Just remember that someday, if H5N1 mutates into something humans can transmit from one another, we'll look back in wonder at the time when near-strangers kissed just to say hi.

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