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A Kiss Is Still a Kiss?

May 08, 1999|NORINE DRESSER | Norine Dresser's latest book is "Multicultural Celebrations" (Three Rivers Press, 1999). E-mail:

An American tourist arrives early to catch his plane home from Auckland International Airport in New Zealand. While waiting, he notes the different ways that other travelers greet and bid farewell to their families.

He focuses on one man wearing a dark business suit and carrying a leather briefcase. Another man rushes up to greet him, but instead of their shaking hands or embracing, the two men touch noses.

What did it mean?

The traveler and his greeter were Maori, and they were performing a traditional hongi (salute) by pressing their noses against one another. Rather than being a kiss, the hongi is a formal greeting, particularly used during rites of passage, where pressing noses is a sign of respect. Frequently, non-Maori describe this act as rubbing noses, long associated with Eskimos and misinterpreted as a kiss.

More than 35 years ago, writer and adventurer Peter Freuchen, who lived with Eskimos, appeared on "The $64,000 Question" quiz show. The host asked him about the custom of rubbing noses.

Freuchen explained that it wasn't really kissing but a way to smell one another. Indeed, through smell, one may obtain important cues about another person's health, hygiene and food choices.

In ancient Hawaii, before kissing on the cheek become commonplace, when meeting, traditional Hawaiians inhaled one another. Although many people today consider haole, (outsider) a derogatory word, in Hawaiian it originally meant "not of the same breath."

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