THE day I received an e-mail from a married male acquaintance that he signed with an "XO" was the day I realized I didn't know what "XO" meant anymore.
I usually reserve my own XOs -- which, as an admittedly pathetic attempt at originality, are actually XXs -- for female friends, and they typically mean either "I like you," "I love you" or "I'd write more if this e-mail wasn't 37th on a list of 200 that I need to respond to."
While I'd accepted the fact that there were people who were simply XO-crazy -- business colleagues, strangers, and this guy I met once who teaches an outdoor boot camp class and put me on one of those weekly reminder lists that neglects to contain an unsubscribe link -- they tended to be either female or gay. When straight members of the opposite gender XO each other, I'd always assumed it was the equivalent of an in-person peck on the lips -- either a romantic gesture or one of those I'm-being-provocative-and-waiting-to-see-how-you-respond moves.
There are many schools of thought on the matter. When I was dating a guy who XO'd me, one friend insisted that the two letters signified his undeniable love for me ("No straight man does that unless he's committed," I believe were her exact words), while another explained that it was exactly this act that proved how not straight he was ("Metrosexual is one thing -- taking on the habits of little girls writing their best friends from summer camp is another," she sniffed).
Whatever his meaning or orientation (both friends, to the best of my knowledge, turned out to be wrong), I'll confess that I felt safe XX-ing him only after he'd XO'd me. Call me fearful, infantile or archaic, but X-ing before I'd been X'd seems a girl blunder of mammoth proportions, the virtual equivalent of blurting out "I can't wait to go out again!" before the appetizers have been served.
Yet it seems that over-analyzing Internet kisses and hugs isn't reserved strictly for women. "A girl I had gone on a few dates with, and smooched with a little, sent me an e-mail signed with an X," writes my friend Mike over (a non-XO'd) e-mail. While he gives lip service to the fact that his XO analysis was limited to whether the X stood for hug or kiss -- " 'O' could be the hug, connoting an embrace by its circular nature, or it could be the kiss, since it looks like puckered lips" -- he never did find out what meaning, if any, the girl intended.
Wikipedia can help clarify Mike's quandary -- "X," they say, represents the four lips of a kiss and the "O" the arms of a hug -- but no Internet site would even dare attempt to explain the meaning behind the original emoticon. And none of my experiences have helped clarify the issue, either.
Just as I'd concluded that I was assigning XO far more significance than it deserved, I had lunch with the married XO-er, who was ringless and greeted me with a peck on the lips. Was he the anomalous XO-crazy straight guy who was just incredibly friendly and whose ring happened to be getting cleaned or refit that day, or did his XO actually have the kind of significance I'd originally suspected?
I assumed the former, feeling about as naive as I was when I was a little girl at summer camp, littering all my letters with Xs and Os.