Diccon Bewes: Kiss me, I’m Swiss
Diccon Bewes explains Swiss greetings and how to navigate them.
The Swiss are great kissers.
I can make that statement purely from having experienced the quantity rather than the quality, because they kiss an awful lot. When you greet people you know well, particularly family and close friends, you kiss them three times on the cheek. It’s a case of move to the left for a right cheek kiss, back to the right and then to the left again. Clearly the two-kiss approach used by most of the rest of Europe just wasn’t enough for the Swiss. And usually these are not mwah-mwah air kisses, but real ones, sincerely meant. This is Switzerland, after all, where most things are taken seriously. The big question is at what stage of a friendship do you start kissing?
As this earlier post explained, getting to know the Swiss can be a minefield of social pitfalls, but added to that is the complication of all the Swiss languages having two forms of you. With strangers and people older or more important, you stick to surnames and use the formal Sie, vous or Lei to mean ‘you’; with family, close friends and children, you can switch to first names and the more familiar du, tu or tu. If others introduce themselves as Herr or Frau So-and-So, then it’s Sie; first names from the start means it’s safe to use du. Saying du instead of Sie is unpardonably rude, but luckily for German learners the Sie form of the verb is the simplest so it’s easy to be very polite.
At some point you might be offered (or be moved to offer) Duzis, or changing from Sie to du, a clear sign that your friendship has progressed by becoming less formal. After that, you must never use Sie again with that person, as that might infer a cooling of your friendship. Forgetting the rules is more trouble than it’s worth. Once, when offering an old lady my seat on a tram, I undid my good deed by inadvertently using du. Not only did she remain standing, but proceeded to castigate me for being so forward and impolite. Then again, I have undoubtedly offended countless people by saying Sie even though we had agreed to Duzis.
My rule of thumb, and lips, is if we are at Duzis, then we are at the kissing stage, unless of course it’s a slightly more formal level of Duzis, such as in the workplace. Few kisses there. Or if the other person is a straight man. With so much kissing going on, the only saving grace is that, unlike in France or Russia, few straight Swiss men kiss each other; instead they make do with a manly handshake. How very British of them. Of course, British lips (both upper and lower) are less stiff than they used to be, but I doubt they will ever be as loose as Swiss ones; two kisses are enough for many Brits, and most probably prefer none at all. My grandfather used to say ‘loose lips sink ships’ (a wartime thing, apparently) but seeing as Switzerland is landlocked, it obviously never applied here. Funnily enough, Switzerland might not have a coastline, but it has won the America’s Cup and has a merchant shipping fleet equal in size to Russia’s.
All this kissing means that any gathering of family or good friends can turn into a kiss-a-thon. At a wedding, for instance, you can end up kissing for England (or more precisely Switzerland) before you get close to a glass of champagne. That I can live with. My biggest problem now is that when I go back to Britain and greet friends, I’m so used to the left-right-left head-bob that I am left dangling in mid-air waiting for a kiss that never comes. That’s the true sign of an expat who lives in Switzerland: the Third Kiss giveaway.
And don’t forget that saying goodbye is also a three-kiss moment. It can take quite a while, and an awful lot of kisses, to leave a party. So it’s goodbye from me, with an XXX, and I’m off to buy some lip salve.
Diccon grew up in Britain but now lives in Bern. He has spent the last seven years grappling with German grammar, overcoming his innate desire to form an orderly queue and exploring parts of Switzerland he never knew existed. And eating lots of chocolate. He is the author of the bestselling book Swiss Watching.
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