One kiss, two kiss, three kiss, four? A former expat describes the five W’s of French kissing culture.
It’s been three years since the Republic of France and I parted ways. There are things I miss about my former home (hot chocolate and people-watching at Le Régent, for example), and things I don’t.
Frankly, I’m not missing kissing. (Or as the French call it, faire la bise.)
Seismic cultural shifts
The first time I moved to France, as a teenager, I was blissfully unaware of the seismic cultural shifts that were in store for me. Life in Caen took a lot of getting used to — and I’m not just talking about the language issues.
One day I was in town doing some shopping when I spied a girl I’d met at a party the previous week. “Salut, Thérèse,” I called out, waving happily.
She looked at me blankly for a second before smiling politely in recognition. “La Canadienne,” she murmured, leaning close, and closer, and then — just as I started wondering if she was going to whisper in my ear — kissing me on the cheek. Twice.
My first French kiss. I can still feel the shock.
A standard greeting
Many years later, the double kiss would become a standard greeting between my friends and me. But at that time, being kissed by another girl — and a stranger at that — was not something I was used to.
What I didn’t realise is that, to the French, la bise is not really a kiss. Not the way we Anglos define it, anyway. There’s nothing remotely sexual about it, any more than a hearty handshake could be construed as “holding hands”.
Knowing something and being comfortable with it, however, are sometimes very different things. When I returned to France 20 years after that first encounter, I struggled all over again with the concept of kissing people I barely knew. Witness the following email I sent to a friend several months into our stay:
The whole kiss-kiss thing just freaks me out. Whenever [my daughter’s friend and her family] come over, it takes forever to get all the kissing out of the way. Each of us has to kiss the dad, the mom and the kids. And that’s just to say hello. When they leave we have to do it all again.
I eventually managed to wrap my head around the concept of kissing hello and goodbye. The rules are a little tricky, but here — as far as I can figure out — are the basics of la bise:
The 5 W’s of kissing à la française
The possibilities include family and friends, as well as people who have been introduced by a mutual acquaintance. La bise crosses gender lines: women kiss men as well as other women, although men are more likely to shake hands with each other.
A general rule of thumb: if two people tutoient each other (address each other with the familiar tu instead of the more formal vous), faire la bise is in order. When in doubt, a handshake probably won’t ruffle any feathers.
It’s a light peck or cheek-grazing air kiss. No slobbering, lingering, or lipstick smears allowed.
Coming and going.
The cheek, and only the cheek. Remember: this isn’t seduction; it’s good manners.
On the broader subject of where, I should point out that the rules vary according to what part of France you’re in. For example, Thérèse gave me two kisses, but many of the social encounters I witnessed in Caen involved four, and three is the standard in some areas.
(If you’re throwing up your hands at this point, grumbling that you need a map to figure it all out, you’re in luck. I happen to have one right here.)
Because it’s the custom, of course. A bigger question might be: “Why are we Anglos so squeamish about kissing strangers?”
Writing in the Sunday Times, Keith Thomas points out that the social mores surrounding the kiss have been changing for the past eight centuries or so: what was once “a ceremonial means of expressing and cementing social, personal and political relationships” has become increasingly sexualised, and the common English greeting of a full-mouth kiss for men and women alike gradually died out. On the continent, the chaste brushing of lips across the cheek was less sexually ambiguous, so the custom prevailed.
With that in mind, I’ll stop complaining about the occasional need for cheek-to-cheek contact. After all, if the English had dug in their heels, things could have been far, far worse.