European hand-kissing is a charming Middle-European custom whereby a gentleman greets a married lady by kissing a wafer( Necco, not silicon)-thin slice of air over her extended hand. This is the equivalent of a handshake, with slight deference; no romantic connection is implied.

American hand-kissing differs from this in that the lips are actually on the hand, the woman is not necessarily married, and the guy is generally a jerk.

OK, this is an exaggeration, but in my experience with the male gender, hand-kissers tend to fall into two groups: guys who don't have a clue about how to treat a woman who speaks in grammatical sentences, and so, fall into an exaggerated version of what they've seen in movies, and those who figure that the suggestion of carnality, coupled with the overtones of courtly love, will suggest a woman to fall on her back, convinced that her Prince Has Come, or is at least upstanding.

A third, but vocal group, will insist that they really don't mean any of this -- what they want to imply is something less, um, chummy than a handshake, with a touch of romantic whimsy, and yet not as forward (read: liable to be treated as attempted date-rape) as a kiss on the cheek or lips. The first objection I have to this is that it's the same kind of American thinking that needs to invent all kinds of ways to emphasize things, as if simply stating them was not enough, by using scare quotes as italics, semi-colons as commas, the use of "unique" as a comparative meaning "unusual", couples stating at weddings that theirs is a "special love", a "real love", "unlike any that has ever come before"...and presumably superior to those of their parents...

The second is that if you're really unsure as to how romantic whimsy in the form of more carnal kisses is going to be received, perhaps chumminess is a good place to start. Flowers, candy, or a current paperback or CD, properly gift-wrapped of course, may be more in order (Amazon.com does a great job here), if you're interested in pursuing the matter further. Or you could try doffing your baseball cap to her, rising when she enters the room or leaves the table, or any number of other small noncontact gestures, possibly with a bit of a mysterious smile (which can be interpreted any number of ways). If she's outrageously offended by your door-holding, there's a fairly good chance she won't be swayed by your attempts at bedding her, either. (At which case, I suppose, you can start talking about Andrea Dworkin and, gee, isn't Rosie O'Donnell a great actress...) She might be puzzled by this, which you can explain as being "just a habit I picked up, sorry if it bothers you." However, if her eyes light up when you offer to hold her packages, well, let's just say that there's a bit more hope for your own. Package, that is.

The point is that Americans are sentimental, sensual and romantically-minded; at the same time, we're uncomfortable with the notion of social ritual, with its implied ideals of propriety and aristocracy. We'd like to show that we're a cut above the rest...but without holding ourselves up too high. (The co-option of romantic gesture -- from show tunes to the color pink -- by gay men is another factor, of course.) So, romance is beset by would-be creative souls intent on reinventing the wheel. Please, in the name of the female sex, reconsider. Wrest hand-kissing from the unmarried, and try something else instead.

We may even like it.

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