Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Collision Detection or Why Europeans are Better at Cheek-Kissing

I consider myself to be a patriotic U.S. citizen, but there are certainly some shortcomings in the nation’s vernacular body language that are hard to ignore. For example, in this country, people are far worse at cheek-kissing than their European counterparts. It's safe to say that even the most socially awkward European is likely to be a better cheek-kisser than the most suave American.

So, on behalf of my countrymen, I offer the following analysis that breaks the problem down into a series of conditional tests to avoid the most common pitfalls in this amicable nicety and to try to explicate what I see as the rules of this particular social interaction.

To do so, I'll use the construct of "collision detection," which may be unfamiliar to readers who've never taken a videogame design class like the basic one I'm taking now, but they can think of it as an algorithm that checks for the intersection of two solids. Contemporary versions of classic games like Pac-Man, Space Invaders, and many others are built with the understanding that the impact of one programmed object on another determines how the game’s action unfolds. (“Collision Detection” is also a title of a popular blog by Clive Thompson, which you may notice on the Virtualpolitik blogroll.)

From the recipient's perspective, the collision of a typical cheek-kiss can be broken down into three basic aspects: the location of the impact, the type of object encountered, and a report of damage after the event.

Location is generally the first mistake made by a U.S. native. Near the ear, neck, or mouth are not acceptable targets. A good cheek-kisser does not get extra points for aiming at more tricky locations. For something that represents boundaries and social convention, stick to the basics and avoid the arcane. A smooch near one's nostril is particularly unwelcome.

Second, there are many errors made in the actual cheek-kiss itself, which makes what could be a clumsy moment considerably more so. I say, if the objective is to kiss the cheek, kiss the cheek. Do not pucker so much that you seem to be avoiding the close contact that you've already initiated. On the other hand, clenched-lipped mashing in which an offending nose drills into the victim's cheekbone or eye socket is also wrong.

Finally, there is the matter of the impression that you leave behind when you withdraw. A slightly damp cheek is fine. Adults are perfectly capable of not drooling or slobbering, and an utterly dry physiological calling card is a little too reminiscent of a robotic uncanny-valley type of encounter that leaves no trace. Obviously, however, a bruise is a bad memento.

In other words, this procedural rhetoric probably deserves more attention from Americans. What should be a gesture of warmth and affection is too often treated as a perfunctory exercise of patriarchal decorum, and -- like mechanically opening a door or pulling out a chair -- there are ways that this incursion into another person's private space can be executed so that it is perceived as a sort of hostile act.

I use a trivial example to make a serious point, one that is worth keeping in mind in our era of jostling modernity, which Walter Benjamin once characterized as composed of "a series of shocks." Gestures of welcome and leave-taking should ideally ease those jolts rather than contribute to their repercussions, something to which continental sensibilities may be somehow better attuned. Moreover, a collision-detection reading of the norms of daily etiquette can be applied to many other situations as well.

I'm working on a paper now about Cruel 2B Kind, the alternate reality game created by Ian Bogost and Jane McGonigal, in which common forms of effusive politeness, such as giving compliments and blowing kisses, can actually serve as weapons in their game of "benevolent assassination." Unlike the
cheek-kissing case, the rules that are in play involve interactions between strangers, but -- as I indicate in this snippet from the abstract -- the game also facilitates a kind of useful defamiliarization of all kinds of standard operating procedures at work in civil society.

Alternate reality games or ARGs are interactive narratives that use the real world as a platform for community activity to tell stories that may be affected by participants' concepts or responses. These games frequently equip players with resources from computational media, distributed networks, and mobile technologies in order to coordinate events and actors in real time.

Because these games are generally staged in the built environments of cities, ARGs frequently comment on other, less obvious forms of “mixed reality” that are present in invisible architectures of control that dictate how social roles are assigned, economic resources are allocated, physical distance between human beings is maintained, and rules governing the general strategies of cooperation and competition appropriate for urban dwellers are formalized.

So I guess I'm interested in games because, as McGonigal says, "reality is broken." Too often I feel that my colleagues in literature departments see games merely as quaint or cool objects of academic study that can be divorced from their own behavior and the social conventions that they accept. But, as I previously argued in "On Procedurality," maybe the lesson of game studies is that we should all be analyzing our neighborhoods and personal interactions instead.

Update: Bogost points out that The Wall Street Journal ran a related article on this subject, "Americans Learn the Global Art Of the Cheek Kiss."

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