Hand-kissing is a ritual of greeting and respect. It is initiated by the person receiving the greeting by holding out her/his hand with the palm facing downward. The person kissing bows towards the offered hand and (symbolically) touches the knuckles with his lips, while lightly holding the offered hand. Note that the lips will not actually touch the hand in modern tradition. The gesture is short, lasting less than a second.
The hand-kiss is offered by a woman to a man (the man kissing the hand). It is a gesture of extreme politeness where the lady offering it is expected to be of same or higher social status than the gentleman executing it. It is considered impolite to refuse an offered hand-kiss. Hand-kissing has become rare and is mostly restricted to conservative upper class or diplomats.
The hand kissing is used quite prominently in The Godfather series, as a way to indicate the person who is the Don.
The hand kiss is sometimes used as a romantic gesture, usually in parting. It could be used to convey a feeling of a more traditional and emotional attraction, rather than a superficial one that has become a stereotype of the 21st century. This could be misconstrued as a parody or mockery of the original gesture, and indeed at times it may be used as such, but this must not be seen as the sole intention. For example, it would not be mockery for a man saying goodnight to his girlfriend to kiss her hand, but a person who greatly exaggerated the practice would be clearly seen as mocking it.
The gesture was common in the European upper class throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. It started to disappear in the 20th century. It is very uncommon today in Northern European countries. The gesture originated in Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as a gesture expressing respect towards a woman and the Spanish courts of the 17th and 18th centuries, probably as a formal submission or pledge of allegiance of man to man. The man would show his submission by kissing the signet ring (a form of seal worn as a jewelry ring), the symbol of authority of the dominant person.
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