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Will the Cheek Kiss Come Back to Italy?

When the COVID-19 dust settles and social distancing rules have relaxed, will Italy’s iconic greeting of a kiss on each cheek make a full recovery?

Along with other classic trademarks like espresso, pizza, and Vespas, the ritual of greeting with a kiss is indelibly etched in Italy’s DNA. Traced as far back as the 5th century B.C., the cheek kiss, or osculum, gained widespread popularity in Roman times. It was later practiced by the early Christians (deemed a way to transfer the Holy Spirit between the faithful), eventually morphing into a symbol of romantic love around the 11th century A.D. Fast forward, the modern gesture is given in a spirit of friendship and affection that exudes warmth, kindness, and comradery. It’s an Italian custom that’s non-gender specific.

INSIDER TIPTo avoid an awkward false start, plant the first of two kisses on your intended’s left cheek and finish on their right.

In early March of 2020, the sober and dignified Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte made an unprecedented announcement that would thrust Italy overnight into social isolation. At the time, it was nearly impossible to fathom the emotional toll that days, weeks, and months under coronavirus lockdown would take on the country’s collective psyche. Perhaps Mr. Conte had a tiny inkling of what would lie ahead for his sentimental citizens. Addressing a shell-shocked nation, he ended his remarks with one comforting line: “Let’s stay away from one another today to embrace each other more warmly, to run faster tomorrow.”

Many are worried that such drastic measures will change their personal relationships and erase what is part of Italy’s intangible cultural heritage: defined by UNESCO as living expressions passed from one generation to another that contribute to social cohesion and a sense of identity. If the kiss doesn’t return to Italy, how would people greet each other instead? With an elbow bump or a wave? Might a kiss blown from afar become a socially acceptable substitute for the real thing?

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Might a kiss blown from afar become a socially acceptable substitute for the real thing?

While things may seem rather bleak at the moment, the news isn’t all bad. Researchers who study behavioral changes following extraordinary global disruptions found that, although there is a potential for long-lasting shifts in social norms, those habits that are perceived frivolous or unimportant tend to go out the window first (i.e., luxury consumerism or celebrity watching). A pandemic requires people to work together in a common cause, resulting in a greater sense of community. Not knowing the full extent of the changes forced confinement will have on Italy or the world at large, mounting evidence (and a lot of finger-crossing) suggests that deep-rooted traditions that promote feelings of national pride, such as the cheek kiss, are more likely to re-emerge stronger than ever, post-pandemic.

In a country where the local coffee bar is a substitute for the kitchen table and the piazza is its living room, the prospect of Italians not being able to see, hug, and kiss family, friends, and neighbors is a jagged pill to swallow. Only time will tell if the beloved kiss will stage a comeback.