The phenomenon of romantic kissing continues to fascinate people around the world. While people in western societies often take for granted the notion that romantic partners express their desire for one another through open-mouthed kissing, this is not a cultural universal. On the contrary, according to the findings of a well-known cross-cultural study, the practice of romantic kissing is conspicuously absent in the majority of world cultures.
William Jankowiak, Shelly Volsche, and Justin Garcia published a research report titled “Is the Romantic–Sexual Kiss a Near Human Universal?” (American Anthropologist, July 6, 2015). The researchers utilized eHRAF World Cultures, the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample developed by George Peter Murdock and Douglas R. White, and a selective ethnographic survey to document the presence or absence of the romantic–sexual kiss (Jankowiak, et al, 2015). At the time they based their research on a set of 168 cultures compiled from eHRAF World Cultures (128 cultures) as well as the SCCS (27 cultures) and by surveying 88 ethnographers (13 cultures). Global ethnographic evidence suggests that romantic kissing is common in only 46% (77) of the cultures sampled. The remaining 54% (91) of cultures demonstrate no evidence of romantic kissing.
Shortly after the publication of this study, HRAF published an article titled “Romantic or disgusting? Passionate kissing is not a human universal” (Barone 2015). This continues to be among the most popular articles on the HRAF homepage. Dr. Jessie Rack, Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Connecticut, also covered the topic in a story titled “Not Everybody Likes Kissing” (NPR, August 12, 2015).
In the Fall 2021 semester, Matthew Longcore, Director of Membership and Outreach at HRAF and adjunct faculty member of Anthropology at the University of Connecticut, introduced the topic of cross-cultural research on romantic kissing to students in an introductory course in cultural anthropology, ANTH 1000 Peoples and Cultures of the World. UConn is a HRAF member institution with access to the eHRAF World Cultures database.
In the course, student teams make presentations on anthropological topics covered by National Public Radio (NPR). Many of the topics explore questions about cultural universals. George Peter Murdock, the intellectual founder of HRAF, identified a list of cultural universals, which include marriage and language. While these practices are universal among all societies, other practices such as cannibalism and incest are not. It is the “grey area” topics such as romantic kissing which provide ideal material for exploration through research. Longcore has found that his UConn students very much enjoy exploring these topics in class. Longcore’s article titled “Is Romantic Kissing a Cultural Universal? UConn Students Explore the Question” includes presentations from the students and a student interview with Professor Jankowiak.
The Colin McEnroe Show, a weekly radio show from Connecticut Public Radio/WNPR, interviewed Longcore for the segment on romantic kissing that aired on October 2, 2023. His segment starts about 28 minutes in. Connecticut Public is a member station of national public media services NPR and PBS. Other guests on the show included:
- Marcel Danesi: Professor Emeritus of Linguistic Anthropology at The University of Toronto and author of The History of the Kiss! The Birth of Popular Culture
- Andréa Demirjian: Author of Kissing: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About One of Life’s Sweetest Pleasures
The Colin McEnroe Show is available as a podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, TuneIn, Listen Notes, or wherever you get your podcasts. Here is an article by Jennifer LaRue titled “Osculate me, you fool! A brief history of romantic kissing” with a link to the interview with Colin McEnroe.
Barone, Francine. 2015. “Romantic or disgusting? Passionate kissing is not a human universal.” Human Relations Area Files: https://hraf.yale.edu/romantic-or-disgusting-passionate-kissing-is-not-a-human-universal/
Jankowiak, William R., Volsche, Shelley L. and Garcia, Justin R. 2015. “Is the Romantic–Sexual Kiss a Near Human Universal?” American Anthropologist. doi:10.1111/aman.12286: https://anthrosource.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/aman.12286
LaRue, Jennifer. 2023. “Osculate me, you fool! A brief history of romantic kissing.” Connecticut Public: https://www.ctpublic.org/show/the-colin-mcenroe-show/2023-10-02/osculate-me-you-fool-a-brief-history-of-romantic-kissing
Longcore, Matthew. 2021. “Is Romantic Kissing a Cultural Universal? UConn Students Explore the Question with eHRAF.” Human Relations Area Files: https://hraf.yale.edu/is-romantic-kissing-a-cultural-universal-uconn-students-explore-the-question-with-ehraf/
Murdock, George Peter. 1945. “The Common Denominator of Cultures” in The Science of Man in the World Crisis, edited by Ralph Linton. New York, Columbia University Press, pp.123-143.
Rack, Jessie. 2015. “Not Everybody Likes Kissing.” National Public Radio: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2015/08/12/431664215/not-everybody-likes-kissing
Romantic kiss sunset cliché (Scarleth White, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)