The ‘x’ factor is one of the the most striking things I’ve experienced since arriving in England three months ago. By this, I’m not referring to the singing competition and its massive following (which I suppose is equally striking), but the ‘x-ing’ culture that seems to take place in this curious little country.

As you may know, putting an ‘x’ near your name denotes a symbolic kiss. ‘xoxo’, being American and reversed, stands for ‘hugs and kisses and hugs and kisses’, and should be said in a Kristen Bell accent, preceded by ‘you know you love me’, and followed by ‘Gossip Girl’. In my lovely hometown of Sydney (and I presume in most other non-UK places), when someone says ‘x’, you think of that nasty boy who ate through your fridge or that nasty girl who ate through your credit card. However, the Brits do it a bit differently—here, ‘x’ becomes a primarily electronic kiss, but one that you would spam in multitudes. You put it after a text or email or Facebook wall post or comment or message or Tweet. Just today, the ever-so-awesome Stephen Fry Tweeted, “Leaving cyberspace for a week or so. Travelling to spend Christmas in a place with flaky reception at best xxxx” If we take this practice to be indicative of real life interactions, then the Brits would be as flamboyantly affectionate as the Italians or certain Austrians or drunk Australians in their greetings.

To alleviate my confusion, I consulted my lovely English housemate, who happens to have a quintessential English name and looks like she belongs in a Jane Austen film. According to her, there’s an unspoken and undefined set of x-ing etiquette that no one seems to know. Some girls tend to do it to their friends without thinking, regardless of said friend’s gender. Other girls are more reserved and stingy with their x’s (imagine that). Guys sometimes x their female friends, but usually only their close ones. Some guys x the girls they like, but not all guys necessarily x their significant others all the time. Just as with every other expression of affection, the frequency and magnitude of bestowing x’s vary according to personal preference.

Not entirely satisfied with her answer, I trekked up to my college for a bit of lunch and a second opinion. An American friend who spent a year studying in Scotland enlightened me with this set of rules:

  • If you’ve just met someone and aren’t too familiar with them, send one x;
  • If you’re friends with someone, send a kazillion x’s;
  • If you like someone, send them two x’s;
  • If you’re dating someone, always send them three x’s, unless you’re mad at them, in which case they’re relegated to one x;
  • However, not everyone adheres to this so you should just x whomever you like, however you like.

I was fascinated, but not entirely convinced. As this practice is completely new to me, I haven’t given anyone a single x yet, not only because I’m not used to it, but also because it’s just not my cup of tea. That being said, I don’t hesitate with my normal electronic markers, and on some special occasions, I’ve given a <3 or two to my friends here. When I told the same English housemate that I’ve never x-ed anyone before, she replied with: “Yes you have! But I don’t know what the D means. And come to think of it, I don’t know why you put the underscores between your x’s.” To which I replied (using my exemplary facial muscles, of course): “XD” and “X__x”

Despite my stinginess with x’s, I’ve received my fair share of x’s, from the following people:

  • My English housemate, who is constantly very generous and spams me with xxxxxx;
  • My Italian housemate, who picked up the habit while doing her Masters in Dublin, but who’s been understandably stingy with her x’s to me since discovering my lack of reciprocation and the reasons behind it;
  • Random female friends from college, with whom I’m not best buds, but know well enough, who x me anywhere between once to thrice;
  • Other friends, who are merely acquaintances, who usually x me once;
  • A close online British friend, who always x-es me once, or thrice, but never twice;
  • Another member of one of my extra-curricular groups, whose first text to me was after I had called her, where she wrote: “Hi did u ring? Im in a lecture atm. Who is this btw? X” I find this practice of x-ing strangers fascinating. Needless to say, she’s continued to x me, and this ranges from once to thrice.

When I mentioned this to my Dutch-who-lives-in-Belgium friend, she expressed her surprise at my surprise, and insisted that she had sent me several x’s in the past when I lived in Sydney. Certain that she was mistaken (because clearly, my memory is faultless), I checked my phone, scrolled through our past texts, and found the neat sets of triple x’s that accompanied every message she sent me. I didn’t recall seeing any of those before, but there they were, happily smiling at me in a ‘have a cross, cause you’re wrong!’ kind of way. Perhaps my overlooking her well-meant x’s was simply a case of cultural ignorance, rather than a lack of attention to electronic linguistic markers.

But now that I’m highly attuned to this practice of x-ing, I simply can’t unsee it. Just like with my obsession with punctuation, I now pay close attention to the numbers of x’s I receive, and from whom. The little kid in me—who thinks everything new is shiny and exciting—is keeping a mental tally. The warm and fuzzy-able in me gets very warm and fuzzy any time I am x-ed, regardless of the x-er’s intention (or lack thereof) to induce warm and fuzzies with their standard sign-off. I’m still uncertain as to whether or not I’ll ever be an active participant of this whole x-ing business, but I do know that should I one day decide to do so, I would undo the auto-caps my phone puts in after I finish my sentence, and send a lowercase ‘x’ to the lucky recipient of my electronic kiss. And try not to put in an extra full-stop when I’m done.

What’s your personal take on this whole x-ing business? Is it prevalent in your culture? If you look back to some of the texts and messages you’ve received, do you find that you’ve been x-ed without your knowledge? Is this a practice you’re familiar with, or one you might adopt? Leave a comment and share your insights on this matter of the ‘x’ factor!