Growing up in America, I spent a good amount of my time reading British literature. Roald Dahl, E. Nesbit and Phillip Pullman were constant companions through my childhood, later replaced by Keats, Eliot and Austen. Though I was fascinated by Britain, I didn’t know much else about it – there were The Beatles, of course, and English muffins and a two-week family trip to London when I was sixteen during which I fondly remember watching Big Brother and experiencing my first tube strike. But the primary cultural exports I received from across the Atlantic were writers, so I pieced Britain together from books much as I imagine British children pieced together America from Friends and Home Alone. My cultural landscape, constructed mainly from novels in which characters wore stockings and used words like ‘shan’t’ and ‘tarry’, was a little out of date. But when I moved to the UK five years ago to study literature, I assumed some values like politeness, well-constructed sentences and tea had survived.
The first text message I received from a British person did not disappoint: ‘Want to pop round mine for tea today? x’, offered my new course-mate Alice. It was delightfully British. Not only was it an invitation for tea, but how quaint to be asked to ‘pop’ over, like a Victorian jack-in-the-box. One thing did confuse me, though, and that was the lone lowercase x lingering at the end of her message. Nothing I had read prepared me for this little letter. Was it a negation of her statement? A warning about adult content? An unknown variable? I assumed it was a typo. But as these little xs began to populate most of the text messages or emails I received from my British friends, I had to ask. ‘It’s a kiss of course’ said Alice, by now my self-appointed cultural guide. ‘I was beginning to worry that you never kissed me back’.
Like other Americans newly arrived in Britain, virtual kisses – along with separate hot and cold taps and excessive fire safety – amused and baffled me. I came here expecting to kiss people on the cheeks, something that isn’t practiced often in the US, where we mainly give handshakes or hugs. But kissing’s ubiquitous textual manifestation seemed particularly extraneous and unnatural. An American will point out that the closest thing we have in the States are xs and os, representing kisses and hugs. We string them together at the bottom of letters home from summer camp, but you wouldn’t usually find xs and os at the end of an American text message. In Britain, on the other hand, the casual frequency with which virtual kisses are doled out is astonishing. I have seen the British add xs to sentiments such as ‘do you want to see a film?’ or ‘what time?’ and even ‘lol’. If there were this much smooching in real conversation, we’d all have chapped lips.
The texture of the American ex-pat experience in Britain is made up of unexpected little discrepancies like this one. With a shared language, it’s easy to slip into an illusion of assimilation once you’ve adjusted to the bigger cultural differences. But then there are always details that sneak up on you, constantly reminding you that you’re not in Kansas anymore. I came to Britain armed for the weather, the emotional austerity and the class obsession. But I never anticipated striped zebra crossings, the word ‘brilliant’ or mashed swede. These details, though, were the raw materials of a much more complex portrait of this rainy island. And so it was with the x: a small aberration, but one that pointed to much deeper and subtler differences between our two countries.
At first, I didn’t see the point. Was it really necessary to kiss this often? Hadn’t we moved beyond cumbersome social etiquette in digital correspondence? Plus the x looked naked without an o, even sinister – a crossing out. Yet I was conscious of my country’s reputation in the Old World. I’d read Daisy Miller, in which Henry James’ eponymous American heroine moves to Europe, offends nearly everyone with her brazenly forward manner, and then – in a turn of events that doesn’t seem unconnected – quickly dies of Roman Fever. I’d watched Love Actually, in which the President of the United States is an ass-grabber. So I was eager to disguise my vulgar provinciality and play by the rules.
And there are rules – each x is a compact coded message. First, there is the issue of capitalisation. An uppercase X means either a bigger kiss, or that someone’s mobile phone has accidentally capitalised it after the end of a sentence. Or it’s just an insignificant personal preference – I’ve spent hours of my life pondering one X’s meaning. Second, there is the issue of how many xs to include. I’ve seen a range from one kiss to xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx, which always reminds me of the comically repetitive cheek-smooching practiced by the Spanish women in Pedro Almodovar’s Volver. It’s generally understood that the more kisses you add, the more affection you are expressing. This is especially important in a budding relationship, when the addition of another x can be a benchmark of growing feelings, either romantic or friendly. For me, virtual kisses have served as a handy guide on the path of love. The British man who is now my boyfriend added two xs to every message as soon as we began dating; a few months later when things got serious he switched to xxx, which seemed comically porny at the time. Now, two and a half years into our relationship, there have been a few thrilling instances when he’s put four kisses. Like chivalry or going steady, love still has its code.
You can tell a lot about a person by the way they x. In my experience women are more liberal kissers, and more quick to increase the number of xs in their messages. Heterosexual men usually kiss women, especially if they are flirting or dating, but they say that they kiss each other much less frequently – my friend Joe, for instance, claims he never kisses his male friends unless he is ‘doing it sarcastically’. All this rather disappointingly suggests that virtual kissing is perceived by some as a ladies’ activity along with yoga, eating yogurt (sorry yoghurt) and talking about your feelings. At least there’s hope in the gay community: when men are literally kissing other men and women other women, restrictive gender rules don’t apply.
But it also varies according to class, industry and age. Both males and females I know who qualify as ‘posh’ – another code I have had to learn – kiss more often and with more xs. Is this because it makes them seem more French? I also work in the publishing industry, where even an acquaintance you met once at the Bad Sex Awards will kiss over email. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are a lot of posh people in publishing. This is not the case, I am told, in the Civil Service or the NHS. Teenagers, ever at the vanguard of technological communication, are fervent kissers, older adults less so. Alcohol can change things, too. As my friend Alex put it, ‘I kiss females most of the time and males less so but usually. I kiss everyone when I’m drunk’.
Americans usually say what they mean. Not true in Britain, where language serves as a polite circumlocution around actual sentiment. This is a country where even angry emails begin with ‘Apologies for chasing’ or ‘Sorry, I’m not quite sure I understand’. And that is if language is used at all. I once saw a man get on a crowded Victoria line train, lie down on the floor in front of the doors, spread out his newspaper, and proceed to read it all the way from Oxford Circus until Finsbury Park while commuters gingerly stepped over him. He received a fair number of disapproving glances, but nobody said a word. I told my sister who lives in Brooklyn about his performance. ‘That would never happen in New York,’ she said. Some large woman would rally the subway car with her thick Brooklyn accent. ‘Who does this guy think he is!’ she would cry. ‘Am I right? AM I RIGHT?’ ‘Yeah, get your butt off the floor!’ the chorus would respond.
I began to realise that virtual kisses make sense in Britain because they say what a message, or a person, often does not: this is who I am, I am glad we are friends, I have a crush, I like you a lot, I am in love. It can go the other way too. My boyfriend, for instance, has a habit of withholding xs when he is angry at me. If there’s only one missing, the night is salvageable. If he puts no kisses – like the time I forgot he was making dinner, and while he cooked Thai Green Curry with real coconut I went out drinking with friends – there will be an argument over cold basmati rice. Virtual kisses give us a sense of where we stand without the fuss of actually saying it; they are the maritime signal flags of the heart.
And the British method is starting to appeal. Why start a fight on the tube when social alienation will do? Why be open about your feelings when you can hint at them with a little symbol? Five years on, earnestness seems embarrassing and crass, interaction something to be avoided unless necessary. I kiss all my friends both in person and by text; I describe books as ‘quite good’; Only Fools and Horses is actually sort of funny. Perhaps I have finally arrived.