Thursday, August 11, 2011

Germans are not calling for a ban on the workplace kiss.

“German call to ban workplace kiss” popped up on the BBC News RSS feed, which sounded scary enough for me to make me want to take a look. Not that I am in any way particularly fond of kissing at work — unless, of course, the other party happens to be my wife — but it’s not the sort of thing you want to see regulated by law. All sorts of scenarios present themselves, up to and including people being convicted of sexual harrassment for all sorts of minor infractions. Or worse, perhaps sexual assault is more common in Germany than I thought, with female workers constantly having to fight off the unwanted advances of their male colleagues.

In fact, as the article itself makes clear, it’s nothing of the sort. What it actually is is a society, with no legal status at all, politely suggesting that because the social kiss, common in countries like France, is very uncommon in Germany, it tends to make people a bit uncomfortable and perhaps it would be wiser to greet each other with a more traditional handshake, unless you happen to know that the other person is fine with a kiss on the cheek.

The “Knigge Society”, as the BBC calls it, is actually not a fan of bans, rules and regulations at all; quite the reverse, in fact: they’re trying to dispel the myth that Knigge was all about rules of etiquette. And what is Knigge? The BBC says “Knigge” translates as “proper behaviour”, thus neatly demonstrating that even the BBC occasionally gets confused between a “translation” and a “synonym”.

In fact, the correct translation of “Knigge” is... “Knigge”. It’s a name: specifically, that of Baron Adolph Franz Friedrich Ludwig Knigge, who lived in the 18th century and wrote a book called Über den Umgang mit Menschen, which can loosely be translated as “on dealing with people”, but is usually simply referred to as “Knigge”. The Knigge Society is fighting tooth and nail against the false perception that this was a list of rules of etiquette: instead, it was a dissertation on the importance of tact, and Knigge himself could probably be described as a sort of prototype sociologist. The problem is that various publishers have, for more than 100 years, been churning out rules of etiquette and using the name Knigge on the front cover.

“Let us put an end to the proliferation of inflexible rules of etiquette!” declares the society’s website. And then, referring to some of the more modern rules invented by random publishers in Knigge’s name, adds: “Anyone who wants to can say ‘bon appetit’ or ‘bless you’ and reverse these ridiculous exaggerations.” The society is not helped by a BBC article stating that the society has previously “ruled on the correct way to end a relationship via text message, and how to deal with a runny nose in public”. The society has “ruled” on no such subjects. The society has given advice to people who don’t want to cause unnecessary offence.

There’s a certain note of desperation in the words of the society’s chairman as quoted by the BBC: “We can’t forbid it,” says Hans Michael-Klein, but in vain because the author of the article still sees fit to state that society is calling for “kissing to be banned” in the very first sentence.

So, a group of people with no legal status or authority tackles a thorny issue that it determines is the result of a culture clash and suggests how people might avoid accidentally giving offence by sticking to the German norm unless both parties happen to be comfortable with the new fashion. That hardly amounts to a call for a ban.

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