There’s always the ongoing cliché about people’s rudeness in France. Even within the country, Parisians get a bad rap from country folk for being arrogant and cold. Whether it’s true or not, all French people partake in a phenomenon that to me is the ultimate in warm intimate welcomes.
La bise, or the cheek-kiss greeting, is as French as it gets. Whenever you meet someone in a social situation, they’re coming in for close contact and you’d better be ready to reciprocate. All the natives have it down pat. The girls know how to handle the receiving of a man’s cheek with all the elegance and grace you’d expect from a lifetime of practice.
But me, I’ve seemingly found every way possible to flub it up. Most times I either come in too hard giving the poor girl the equivalent of a cheek head but, or I overcompensate the other way and hover a half-inch away as she waits politely for me to seal the deal. Never have 3 seconds and half an inch been so packed with awkwardness. I also worry if my current scruffy bearded trend is leaving too many ladies with an unwanted sandpaper experience, but when I see so many other guys rocking the euro facial hair around here I’m probably fitting in better than I think.
So from what I’ve gathered so far, the rules of la bise are:
1) It usually doesn’t involve a literal kiss, rather gently touching cheeks together and making smoochy sounds into the air.
2) I owe kisses to every girl I see in a social situation (Charlotte’s friends, mother, relatives), during the hello session and again when saying goodbye. This can take a while when dealing with larger groups of people, and the conversations never really get started until everyone’s made the rounds. And don’t ever leave a girl hanging: after I kiss a few close acquaintances, I need to follow suit with any others in the group even if I’m certain I’ll never see them again.
3) Kissing young kids is optional
4) Never do it to someone superior to you, like your boss.
5) Meeting total strangers doesn’t warrant one, unless you’re being introduced by a mutual friend in which case, it’s on.
6) Guys only kiss each other if they’re really close friends or family, otherwise a simple handshake will suffice. So far the only man I’m kissing is my grandfather-in-law, because he started it one day and I’m not about to challenge it. There’s a clock somewhere counting down towards the day I kiss the other men in the family, but who knows where it stands currently. The first couple of times I tried to give my father-in-law a normal traditional hug, he assumed I was coming in for kisses and it was a bizarre one-way street of confusing manly intimacy. So we’re back to the handshake, for now.
The expected number of kisses varies between regions. In Paris the number is generally two, one on each cheek. However even this can vary wildly within France for no reason, and even natives can get confused when visiting other areas. A Frenchman once took a poll from different regions and came up with a map of how many kisses during a hello or goodbye:
One day I’d love to be well-travelled enough to confirm or deny these stats. Regardless, this tradition of touching faces together when meeting someone, awkward as it can be, seems a rather lovely idea. With all of our hang-ups about first impressions, giving a stranger a mini cheek cuddle is warmth enough to break the ice in any situation. For this reason alone, the French should get a break on the whole rudeness preconception.
So for now I’ll keep honing my skills, over or under-kissing my way through the City of Love in search for the perfect French hello. And when that in-law man-kiss alarm clock goes off one day, I’m gonna rock their world!
Wait, maybe I should re-phrase that…