When a Kiss is Just a Kiss


“Why do people kiss?” my nephew asked his parents when he was younger.

“Because that’s their way of saying I love you,” answered his mother.

“Why don’t they just say it then?” he asked.  “Why do they have to kiss?”

Questions like these have been asked by curious adolescents of giggling parents for as long as children and parents have been interacting. The reason that we parents might experience some confusion when trying to answer questions like these is that we’ve taken kissing for granted for so long, and that it’s been such a staple in the process for so long, that we haven’t stepped back to ask “Why?” since we were adolescents.

Puddy and Elaine

Most parents probably dismiss the peck as the source of their child’s inquiry, and focus their search for an answer on the saliva sharing smooch. Most of us probably assume –assigning our thoughts to the question–that our child has already accepted the “Hello” and “Goodbye” peck as a fundamental part of the process of greeting and parting with our loved ones, and that the nature of the child’s curiosity regards why a man would want to suck on a woman’s saliva, in a city park, to express love, and why the two of them would enjoy that elongated transfer of fluids so much that they would want to do it more often?

“One hypothesis,” posed by Noam Shpancer, of Psychology Today, “is that (the sloppy smooch) might be a mechanism for gathering information about a potential partner. A kiss brings you in close –close enough to smell and taste [the] chemicals that carry immunological information. Our saliva carries hormonal messages: Close contact with a person’s breath, lips, and teeth informs us about his or her health and hygiene– and thus potential as a mate. Research also suggests a range of other functions, such as expressing and reinforcing feelings of trust and intimacy and facilitating sexual intercourse. The meaning of a kiss depends on who’s doing the kissing.”

If my nephew forced his mother to explore this question further. She could’ve said something along the lines of, “A woman learns a lot from a kiss.” She need not go into the depth Noam Shpancer did. She could’ve simply said that a quality kiss shows a woman that you’re paying attention and that your affection for her is real.

“If you’re simply kissing her with ulterior motives,” his mother could say, “a woman will know. Some of the times a kiss is just a kiss, but some of the times it means something, and a woman will know the difference.”

My nephew was not, and is not, of the age to understand the term “end game”, but I’m guessing that that was the crux of his follow up question, “Why don’t they just say it then? Why do they have to kiss?” Why doesn’t a guy just walk up to the woman in the park and say, “I love you,” and walk away when he’s determined that she knows he’s being genuine?

I’m sure that his mother would then say something along the lines of, “Because saying ‘I love you’ can be easily faked, and a girl needs to know that you love her, and physically showing her, with a meaningful kiss, proves it to her. A woman can feel your intentions.” This basically goes to the chemistry, and the Chemistry that Shpancer described, in a woman knowing and knowing in her conscious and subconscious determinations, but that would’ve been way over the head of my nephew, of course, and it would’ve only led to more questions about the abstracts of need, emotion, and fulfillment that he was too young to understand.

My nephew is male, of course, and reading the Psychology Today findings in the Evolutionary Psychology piece, he might never understand when a kiss is just a kiss on the level that those of the female gender do. For to a male, a kiss is rarely as important as it is to a female. If he thinks he’s going to provide an answer, he will chase it. He will want to kiss a girl his age, and he will be confused when it’s over when it doesn’t achieve clarity for her, but he will continue to kiss girls, because he knows it means something to them. When he has ulterior motives, he might try to add bits of information to a kiss, but if his recipient has as much omniscience as his mom and Noam Shpancer theorize, the recipient will know when such additions are false. When he genuinely likes a girl, and those additional ingredients he adds are more organic, he might wonder what the difference was. My advice, if my nephew ever asks me for advice, is do not think, just do. As Olivia Newton-John sang in Grease, “Feel your way.”

In their findings, the Evolutionary Psychology poll states that 86% of women polled would not have sex with someone without kissing them first; while only 47% of males say they would not. Their takeaway was that:

“For women, the smell and taste of their kissing partner weighs heavily in their decision to pursue closer contact. Men routinely expect that kissing will lead to intercourse and tend to characterize “a good kiss” as one leading to sex.”

The next poll probably gets to the heart of my nephew’s follow up question better, as it asks the genders how important kissing is. In a 2013 poll listed in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, there is the suggestion that kissing may never be as important to my nephew as the girls he’s kissing, as men rank the importance of kissing as a 3.8, on a scale of one to five, while women rank it as a 4.2. Their takeaway was that:

“Women rank kissing as more important in all kinds of romantic relationships than men do; men also tend to consider it less important as relationships go on.”

***

The perfect illustration of the minutiae involved in a kiss comes from (where else?) the television sitcom Seinfeld. In an episode entitled The Face Painter, the side character David Puddy informs the character Elaine Benes, that he will no longer “Support the team” by painting his face before hockey matches he attends, because Elaine is embarrassed by it. She is visibly touched by the idea that Puddy would alter his life in such a manner just for her, and to celebrate this new understanding in their relationship Puddy says:

“Ah, c’mere,” as he nears her for a kiss. “All right,” he says when that celebratory kiss is concluded, and he’s up and moving towards the door, “I gotta go home and get changed before the game. I’ll be back, we’ll make out.”

This scene is brilliant on so many comedic levels, not the least of which is the depiction of the value each gender places on kissing. Puddy acknowledges that some sort of romantic punctuation is needed for the agreement they’ve reached, and he basically says, “All right. Here!” to initiate that kiss. The comedic value of the situation occurs when  this romantic punctuation concludes, and Puddy simply says “All right” as if to say ‘now that that’s over, I need to get some things done.’ The very human element of “Enjoying that transfer of fluids so much that he wants to do more often” is then dispelled by Puddy saying once he’s done with something (changing clothes), they can start doing something else (making out). He thereby places the value of making a seemingly transformative change of his life (no more face painting) on a level with the act of changing his clothes, and the excessive kissing involved in making out. This is all punctuated with Puddy unceremoniously suggesting that he’ll do what she wants when he’s done, but that he’s only doing it for her.

The subtext of this exchange surprises the once visibly touched Elaine for she thought she had a read on the situation. “You’d do that for me?” she asked when Puddy announced that he would no longer be painting his face. She believed they achieved a new understanding in their relationship, and she was so touched that he would make such a transformation that before he announced his plans after the celebratory kiss, she was breathlessly holding her hand to her heart. She also appeared on the verge of tears believing that her otherwise unsentimental boyfriend would be making such a life-altering sacrifice for her by sealing it with a kiss. She appeared to believe that this sacrifice, and that kiss, suggested a brighter future, and a better understanding, between the two of them as a couple. When Puddy stands and says what he says, it dispels all of the conclusions Elaine derived from the situation, and the idea that a “woman always knows”. And her only takeaway, as the scene closes, could be that Puddy, like most stereotypical jarheads, will go through the motions to please a woman, but it actually means little-to-nothing to them.

Most boys spend their adolescence believing that their mother knows all, until they find out she doesn’t, but they continue to do the things necessary to please her, and fortify this shared illusion, until most boys become better men for it. Some boys put their heart into it, and live their lives, and kiss their girlfriends with the belief that their mothers know all, and how they treat their mother will be an indicator for how they will go on to treat all women. Others, like the fictional character Puddy, go through the motions to make the women in their lives happy, but to them a kiss is much lower than a 3.8 on a scale of one to five.

My sister-in-law asked me if I wanted to take a crack at answering my nephew’s questions, and I informed her that it’s probably better that I don’t. It’s probably better that he run the optimistic and loving road her answers put him on. He’ll likely become a better man by trying to prove to all the women in his life that he can be meaningful and moving when he wants to be, and when that time comes for him to plant that profoundly spiritual kiss on that one, special woman, he’ll do it with the belief that he can make her believe it too. And, he’ll hopefully get all that done before he falls prey to the cynical notion that some of the times a kiss is just a kiss to get women to shut up about wanting to kiss all the time.

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