From rotten-tooth pashes to pretentious air-kissing: award-winning novelist, poet and playwright Stephanie Johnson’s contribution to our Notes from Self-Isolation series is entitled A Short History of Kissing in Aotearoa. In it, she ponders how Covid-19 might change the way we smooch. 

In the beginning was the hongi, the sharing of breath.


Darwin and others say the open-mouthed kiss

was a European invention

so for now let’s imagine

the first sloppy kissers were whalers,

the convicts, the shipwrecked,

and these kisses not so modern

since teeth were mostly absent – or rotten.


Pioneer mothers would peck their children

but not so often.

Papa might press his mouth

to the forehead of a daughter

but never a son, even in consolation

for fear the boy would soften, grow 

alarmingly less masculine.


No. Pakeha were never an expressive race,

children adored but not caressed.


In the Sixties we were barely touched

nor told we were loved.

I knew it though, rarely doubted it.

Why else was my mother all affection and light 

while my father worked sun-up til night?  


I remember a thin-lipped great-aunt with a kiss like a bite

and how I worried she might eat me.

More fondly recall Granny’s loving arms

her cuddles, hugs and squeezes

but really, not so many kisses.


Men would shake hands if they happened to meet.

A woman and her friend might link arms down the street.


Movie stars taught teenagers how to pash.

We learned the long-haul snog, how to wiggle 

our heads, swap spit, moan and weave tongues

all to the soaring of imaginary violins.


Then suddenly, towards the end of the twentieth century

social kissing was vogue. Kia ora kihi kihi!

Everyone was smooching on first introduction 

without calculation of the intimacy equation.


Kisses goodbye, kisses hello, kisses both sides of the cheeks.

Kisses with laughter, kisses to comfort,

to seal a deal or cheer along a friendship.


It was an adjustment.

‘All this kissing!’

Some of us didn’t like it.

It was unhygenic, intrusive.

Where would it end?




In 2020 we stand at fifteen paces,

lips staying home on our faces.

Hello, goodbye, a distant wave as we part, 

longing hands held over our hearts.


Our children learn to blow their kisses.


When Covid is over (and let’s hope it’s soon)

will there be an atavistic change?

A Pakeha backtrack to Anglo aloofness

for the fear of the germ, the mange?


And on the marae will the hongi die?

Will we learn ever again to stand close?


The historian bends to the business of recording our means of affection. 

It’s not in the brief to field a prediction.