Sunday, October 23, 2005

A follow-up to my previous quasi-ethnographic field research project. Yes, it's time once more for me to turn my considerable intellect and qualitative interviewing skills to a weighty topic of great social import. The major field research for this project was carried out last weekend, although it's such an enjoyable topic that I continue asking people. But before I shed light on this social phenomenon, may I direct your attention to the last time I dabbled in the social sciences, when I tested the hypothesis that social kisses are generally given on the right cheek. The general discussion surrounding my latest field project proved illuminating on that front.

Dave proposed a certain geometry of kissing. It's not about which cheek you aim to kiss, but the relationship between the angle of your head and the angle of the kiss-recipient's head. If, for example, you are aiming to plant a social kiss on someone's right cheek (which appears to you as the left), then you'd incline your head to the left, and they would also incline their head to the left in order to better present their cheek to you. This means that as you kiss, your faces are both slightly turned away: a subtle body language cue that this is non-sexual.

However, if you are aiming for a sexual kiss, you may still tilt your head to the left, but you are aiming for the left cheek of the recipient. This brings your head into a more central position so your two faces are facing slightly inwards: a subtle body language cue that this is sexual. And if someone is leaning in to kiss you in this way, you realise this just before their lips hit your face, and you can make the split-second decision to turn your own head towards their left cheek, thus bringing your mouth directly in line with theirs, or whether to 'refuse' the kiss by presenting your right cheek.

I did think about diagrams, but I realised that this would be fucking hard to render, because you have to depict both the angle of the head tilting sideways and the head tilting forwards. I hope that by now you are just as confused as I am. Did I mention that maths has always been my weakest subject? But basically, at the time Dave suggested this, I was filled with the triumphant conviction that this was the answer, because it explains why Emah's theory about 'right-cheek platonic, left-cheek sexual' holds true, and my theory about a preference for inclining your head left or right has very little to do with it.

Then I talked to Amanda, who pointed me towards Mike Nicholls et al's publications on laterality of expression in portraiture. In 1999, Nicholls and his University of Melbourne colleagues examined portraits by right and left-handed artists, including self-portraits. They noted that the left side of the face (the sitter turning his or her head slightly to the right) is over-represented in portraiture generally; yet portraits of men, and particularly portraits of scientists from the Royal Society, have little or no leftward bias.

Given that the left side of the face is associated with the emotive right hemisphere of the brain, Nicholls et al suggest that sitters for a family portrait display their left cheek to suggest emotion, whereas sitters being painted in their professional capacity display their right cheek to suggest authority. I went through some pictures of myself on this computer, and found that the majority of them I am looking straight towards the camera. When I was a broidsmaid and was posing for pictures, the photographer claimed that my right side was my 'best' side. What does that tell you?

In a subsequent (2002) study, Nicholls et al showed 384 participants some photographs of faces turned 15 degrees left, straight on and 15 degrees right, asking them to rate their emotional expressiveness. To eliminate the variable of aesthetic and perceptual bias, they also included some mirror-images. And, irrespective of whether the pictures were mirror-reversed, the participants consistently rated the left profile as more 'emotional'.

So, what's the implication for kissing? Well, in a social kiss you present your right side to the other person - ie, your more impersonal side; whereas in a sexual kiss you present your left, more intimate side.

Actually, I started writing this post on Friday, but right now, thinking about any of this stuff just really depresses me. Today I was accused of being perverted because of my important social science research. I had asked Jeremy if in America, they refer to partial erections as 'sem-eyes'. You know, now I write it down, you might think this has something to do with money shots, which it absolutely does not. Oh, I'm really digging this hole, aren't I. Well, I am really quite normal let me assure you.

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