Kissing is learnt and not something we do instinctively

PHOTO: Reuters

Despite the Internet and the global proliferation of movies that show people kissing, not everyone is in on the act. In some cultures, the idea of kissing someone on the mouth is about as alien as sticking popcorn up your nostrils.

Take the case of British explorer William Winwood Reade. While in Africa in 1862, Willie fell in love with the daughter of an African king. After drooling over her for several months, he plucked up the courage to kiss her, whereupon she screamed and ran out of her mud hut in terror.

It seems kissing was an alien activity to her, and she thought Willie was about to eat her.

Although this took place a while back, recent research shows that more than half of all societies worldwide do not kiss when expressing sexual desire. There are even some cultures that are totally repulsed by the mere idea of locking lips with someone else.

In one no-kissing society, located on the Trobriand Islands near New Guinea, couples used to bite off each other's eyelashes during intimacy and at the moment of orgasm. Like, how weird is that? Not to mention painful and dangerous. Indeed, a punctured eyeball is probably the quickest way to douse anyone's lust.

Such a strange ritual probably ensured that everyone on the Islands knew which couples had a regular sex life (the ones with the bald eyelids), and those unlucky ones that weren't getting anything. Of course, in an attempt to keep up appearances, unhappy couples probably just pulled out their own eyelashes, while the adulterers glued squirrel hair onto their eyelids to create the impression of celibacy.

Even if this eyelash-biting custom had survived (and who knows what goes on behind closed doors), it's unlikely that it would have made its way into mainstream movies. At least, not in the same way that kissing has. For example, if the movie Titanic had contained a few scenes showing Jack and Rose (the young lovers) snapping at each other's eyelashes as the ship sank into the chilly waters, it might have turned the romantic tragedy into a comedy.

Let's not forget Eskimos kissing. I used to think the only reason Eskimos didn't kiss was because they live in such a cold climate. Attempting to smooch outdoors would cause their lips to quickly freeze together. They would then have to walk sideways, very slowly so as not to tear their lips off, to the nearest igloo to thaw out.

But I've just discovered that this is all a myth, perpetuated by a filmmaker who went to the Arctic to make a documentary and misunderstood what was happening when he saw the local people greeting each other - he dubbed it Eskimo kissing. However, Eskimos don't rub noses. They press their nose and upper lip against the cheek or forehead of a family member and inhale deeply, thereby refamiliarizing themselves with the other's smell.

Since it's obvious that kissing is a learned behaviour and not something that we do instinctively, where does it come from? One theory states that kissing evolved from the actions of mothers who pre-chewed food and fed their weaning babies mouth-to-mouth. As adults, some people remembered this mouth-to-mouth interaction as a pleasurable experience and at some stage sought to recreate it. And voila! They were soon kissing. Moreover, they discovered that kissing was actually more fun than any spoonful of mashed banana could ever be, and it soon caught on.

And if you're not convinced that kissing is learned, think about your first kiss. I don't know about you, but my first kiss wasn't in the least bit instinctive.

The evening before my first date, I experimented by kissing my forearm. I had no idea what sort of pressure to apply, or exactly what I should do with my lips after the initial engagement. No one had prepared me for this moment.

After a few minutes of kissing my arm, I came to the conclusion that lips and forearms have very little in common.

So I began manipulating my thumb and forefinger to create the outline of a pair of lips, complete with an opening.

As I was kissing my makeshift lips, my sister came into my room and asked me what I was doing.

"What does it look like?" I said, trying to remain cool, as if it were the most normal thing in the world to be kissing your fingers with unrestrained passion.

"It looks as if you're gnawing your fingers. Maybe you should eat something."

Even after my sister had left the room, I refused to resume my kissing. The mood had been completely destroyed.

Looking back, I'm just glad that I wasn't discovered biting off a doll's eyelashes.