Kissing the unknown

November 5, 2012 8:04 pm

Faire la bise: France’s set-in-stone greeting means that there are no awkward situations upon meeting someone new

Bonjour, hello, nice to meet you. Oh, you want to hug me? Okay, oh wait no, you’re going for the kiss? Oh God, left cheek? Both cheeks? I’ll just stand here and you can do what you like. Oh God.

That is pretty much the commentary that I had running through my head the first time I was introduced to a French person out here in France. With every day that passes and with every French person I meet, I become increasingly aware of the differences between English greeting situations and French ones. Never in England would I kiss the sheer amount of people in one day that I have in France.

You may laugh and say “well it depends how well a night out goes in England as to how many people you kiss per day,” har har very funny etc, but it’s true: you very rarely kiss people you meet in England, especially for the first time.

Now, that’s not to say that the French are weird or that England have it right and you shouldn’t rub your spit on the faces of strangers, as I am, in fact, more comfortable meeting new people out here on the continent than I am back at home. It’s just a culture difference that I have noticed. It is also a culture difference that I am happy with, for the simple reason that I know exactly what I have to do.

Meeting people in France is a very (ish) simple business. Upon meeting someone, whether it be for the first time or the thousandth time, you “faire la bise”, or, you kiss them on both cheeks. The only thing that makes this a bit more complicated is if you go for the wrong cheek and nearly end up kissing them on the lips, which could be quite a sly tactic if you do fancy a cheeky snog with any beau Frenchman that you may come across, but otherwise, rather awkward. However, in general; bonjour, kiss, kiss, done.

Simple, right? The one thing I would say about this, though, is that when I come to say goodbye to French people that I consider friends, I don’t feel like I’ve done it properly unless I give them a hug. I have one French friend to whom I gave hugging lessons in advance of his trip to Canada to see his girlfriend as he was worried that he wouldn’t know what to do when he met her friends – it was fairly complicated, just how much of a squeeze do you give people?

Being English, I don’t feel like a goodbye is complete without a proper squeeze on departure.

Now, greetings in England. Well. That is a whole other kettle of fish entirely. Guys meeting guys seems to be the least complicated, with their varying degrees of handshake/shoulder bump/man hug depending on the status of their relationship. Women meeting women, or men meeting women, is a much more complicated process. Having been a woman for over 20 years now, with it being safe to say that I have met one or two new people in my time, you would think I would have this whole thing down. Unfortunately, I cannot say that I have, and it still has the potential to become very awkward if there is a breakdown in communication between myself and the person I am meeting as to exactly which particular greeting our relationship requires.

Girls, when you meet another girl for the first time, what are you supposed to do? Hug? Kiss? Shake hands? Awkwardly wave and smile? The latter seems to be my personal favourite, seeing as I daren’t go in for the full on embrace the first time I meet another girl. I prefer to just stand my ground, respect her personal space and try to look and sound welcoming when I say hi.

However, to add to the complication, (as well as the gestures representing the status of your relationship) it also depends on the individual’s preferences as to how the meeting begins. This is particularly evident when I see my mum meeting up with her friends. Originally from Sunderland, she finds this whole soft-southerners-wanting-to-kiss-or-hug-everyone-every-time-you-see-them thing a bit bizarre and something that she doesn’t ever want to engage in. One of her best friends is very pro kissing and hugging when you say hello/goodbye/do you want a cup of tea, so their behaviour when they meet up has become a sort-of running joke.

England needs to follow in France’s footsteps in order to avoid the awkward smile and wave that I have had to do too many times in my life

So, that adds a whole new layer to this complicated rendez-vous situation, because if someone wants to kiss you… you let them. There would be nothing more socially retarded than rejecting a hug or a kiss upon meeting someone for the first time unless you want to nip the would-be friendship in the bud there and then.

Guys, same question: when meeting a girl for the first time, what are you supposed to do? The failsafe awkward smile and wave would suffice here also for the girl, but do guys do it too?

Ugh. I’ve got to hand it to you France, despite your lack of decent bacon, your need to invest in squash instead of juice and kebab shops open no later than 2am, you have the greeting situation wired. England, you ought to sit up and take notice, because the more I think about it, the more awkward the smile and wave thing becomes.

Au revoir, kiss, kiss, done.

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  • ChrisRobinson

    Heh, heh. Can relate to this one. Lived in Germany for five years and, believe it or not, lots of hugging and kissing there too. It was initially difficult to decide ‘who was with who’ if you know what I mean. Me being English needed defining lines – never kiss your mate’s girlfriend etc. Which, when I explained this to a German friend, she scoffed at (apparently) how backward we must be. They acted as if the emotion of jealousy was banished forever. Then, a couple of years of my stay there, I found out otherwise, yes, these sophisticated continentals were just as fragile and screwed up as your average Brit. Saw it when a woman I knew who was into all this kissy/huggy thing and ‘it doesn’t matter if your boyfriend goes out with your best friend etc’ She was at a party looking down in the dumps because her ‘beau’ had dumped her for another and she…well, was NOT alright about it after all. Maybe they’re not more sophisticated, maybe they’re just better at covering up their feelings than us? Who knows? Good article. Thought provoking.

  • lukeBbtt

    I usually just roll with the moment, but that can go horribly wrong.
    Loved this article. I spent my teenage years growing up in France and could relate. My favourite bit of French culture though is the dinner. Not the food, but the occasion that is dinner. Wine is consummed at the same pace as the meal, not drank before or after, like most of my English friends. Also the five course big lunch at noon and the tiny dinner at 8 in the evening is missed. I prefer England in general, but I enjoy feeling as though I have brought a little bit of French culture back across the Channel with me.

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