The lesson of the Leigh Sales incident for men: stick to handshakes and you can’t go wrong

ABC presenter Leigh Sales has sparked a media firestorm following her very public expression of revulsion at being kissed on the lips by businessman Phil Newman when he introduced her at a charity ball she was hosting. Sales’ disquiet will be familiar to thousands of women who face unwanted kisses as part of their everyday working lives.

To recap briefly, Newman, having offered his cheek for Sales to peck then turned his head suddenly and planted an unwelcome kiss on her lips. Sales, clearly affronted, according to an account in Guardian Australia, had the presence of mind to make her objection known by declaring “hashtag me too” into her microphone before with admirable aplomb resuming her MC duties at the black tie dinner.

“The only reason I am commenting publicly is that given how many people witnessed the incident, I feel it would be gutless not to stand up and say that kind of behaviour is intolerable and the time for women being subject to it or having to tolerate it is long gone,” she later told Guardian Australia.

“I was offended and angered by the incident on Saturday night. I had strong words to the man involved, he apologised and I accepted that apology. That should be the end of it as far as I’m concerned.”

While it can be safely imagined that Newman is mortified by the experience, the incident is typical of that disturbing brand of male humour that considers the breach of a woman’s dignity to be a harmless jape, thus nullifying the sexual overtones that necessarily underpin the “joke”.

The deception behind Newman’s stolen kiss, and the violation itself, all in full view of 200 people, illustrate the unfair and unacceptable standards of behaviour that women must navigate daily. Choosing Sales for his gambit was just the first of Newman’s miscalculations, but imagine the same scenario with a younger, less confident, less powerful woman in Sales’ place.

Newman’s public humiliation ultimately occurred because it remains the fashion for men to greet women with a peck on the cheek. The lesson for men to be taken from Newman’s faux pas is not to stick to the cheek, but to do away with the peck altogether.

Hazards of the pecking order

Women in the workplace and other professional settings may not have to endure lip-on-lip contact but for most the peck on the cheek is equally something to be endured. They know that one of the hazards of success is being on the receiving end of the power kiss. The higher up the pecking order, the more likely the unwanted pecks.

Imagine being a businesswoman or woman of station about to enter a room in the knowledge that what awaits is a gaggle of men queuing to pucker up in greeting.

This is an issue I first canvassed in a column for the Australian Financial Review in 2011:

“To kiss or not to kiss? That is the question in these fraught times of gender do’s and don’ts. Business etiquette has, by and large, kept pace with shifting norms of behaviour that reflect greater equality between the sexes in workplaces and the corridors of power. But the issue of when, if at all, to greet a female associate or peer with a kiss on the cheek is unresolved.”

The response I received at the time was that most women don’t like being kissed at business or professional gatherings.

Who can blame them? Every time a woman walks into a crowded room, big boofy blokes will circle to plant a kiss on the cheek. The inevitable slobberthon can’t be pleasant for women.

As the Leigh Sales incident makes clear, many men are still programmed to pucker up the instant a member of the opposite sex enters their midst. For these men, the social distinction is clear: you shake hands with a man, you kiss a woman on the cheek.

Women who don’t like being kissed leave no room for doubt. At gatherings their hands shoot out before anyone has a chance to invade their face. But some women favour the kiss as an appropriate greeting, or at the very least are prepared, reluctantly, to let an outdated practice through to the keeper. And so the custom endures.

Business etiquette, which is generally attentive to changing norms of behaviour in the workplace, seems to have bypassed the power peck. The propriety of greeting a female associate or peer with a kiss on the cheek remains a grey area. (And don’t get me started on the hug – when did that start?)

Grey areas aren’t helpful when it comes to stomping out undesirable behaviour. Many men work on the assumption that a grey area is as good as a green light when it comes to zeroing in on a female colleague’s cheek.

Women are entitled to be free of manhandling. It would be better for all if clear rules of engagement were established once and for all. The rule can be expressed in one word: don’t.

The Queen has the right idea. When she’s on the job there’s no touching and no kissing. Flowers are optional.

The bottom line should be this: if it’s business, keep your lips to yourself.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He is on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

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