Monday, January 19, 2009
For all the time I spend dwelling on how unfrench I feel, being back in the States for a few weeks showed me that I might be a little more French than I thought. As I greeted friends and family I hadn't seen in a while I found myself leaning in for la bise or the French cheek kiss.
In America we have very loose rules about how we greet each other. Sometimes we shake hands, sometimes we hug, sometimes we kiss one cheek, sometimes we kiss on the lips, sometimes we wave and sometimes we do nothing at all. This is all very difficult for French visitors and immigrants to deal with. In France the method for greeting people is clearly defined and uniformly applied.
Men who are greeting men shake hands. Men who are greeting men who are good friends or family kiss. Men who are greeting women in a professional context shake hands. Men who are meeting women in a social context kiss.
Women who are greeting other women in a social context kiss. Women who are greeting men in a social context kiss. Women who are greeting either men or women in a professional context shake hands.
Now, allow me to explain how one properly performs la bise.
Close your eyes and turn your head to the left. The number if kisses depends on the region. Two is the most common but it can range anywhere from one to four kisses. I just keep my eyes closed and let the other person lead. The kissing sound in critical. It needs to be nice and loud. You really can't over do it.
The cheeks must actually touch. Air kisses only happen in the movies and in LA. When the cheeks meet, it should be all cheek. If you adjust the cheek to lip ratio, as in part of your lips touch the other persons cheek or your kiss lands fairly close to the other persons lips, do so with caution! A strong message of intimacy or hope of future intimacy can be communicated by a single lippy kiss. Believe me, sweet young exchange students who unintentionally give far too lippy kisses find themselves very popular with the boys very quickly.
La bise, is performed at hello and goodbye. This amount of kissing can make Americans uncomfortable, we consider kissing to be a very intimate act. We much prefer hugging, be it of the full on, sideways or back patting variety. Interestingly, the French have quite the opposite opinion. Hugging can make them very uncomfortable while kissing is viewed as far more casual. I suppose if you consider the body parts touching while hugging (arms, chest, neck, back, hips, hair) and the parts touching when you kiss (cheeks) they do have a point. When I first met my sister in law (who is now a dear friend and accustom to my crazy American ways) I would tackle her with a giant hello hug. As I wrapped her up in my arms I could feel her back stiffen and her shoulders tense. I unknowingly moved too quickly from kissing to hugging. This same thing occurred with many other in-laws and French friends. I have since toned down the hugging and turned up the kissing. There is just so much to learn.