« Greetings and salutations ». While this may be the title of a chapter in your French 101 textbook, I doubt they would cover an important element of the French culture: the kiss.
Yes, the French do kiss! And I am not talking about the (in)famous “French kiss”. I’m talking about the “bise”, a kiss you exchange upon greeting your friends and acquaintances or bidding them farewell. It may seem a paradox to the outsider of the French culture, but French people can look somewhat aloof in their social interactions. I just recently met a Canadian young lady who, after just a few weeks in France, was feeling completely deprived of friendly physical contact! Hugs are a rarity outside of the family circle. And the “bise” may not make up for this absence of physical interaction.
For, although it may be warm, friendly and affectionate, the “bise” is more often than not absent-minded and may even feel empty as two people rub cheeks while kissing the air! Like those of your friends who insist that you look into their eyes while clinking glasses, there are those who will make a point of putting their lips on your cheek. Others will start their conversation while kissing: “Hi Dariling! – kiss – how are you? – kiss – I just saw your new car out there – kiss – what a beauty! — kiss”… Wait a minute… Did you count right? Where there four kisses?
Well, depending on where you live, you may have to give one to four kisses when greeting your friends! If you visit Provence, that would be 3, starting with the right cheek. In other parts of France, it is four, starting left! The cultural common ground would be two kisses, starting left. The cheek on which to start is of importance obviously, so when a French person from one culture meets one from another, they will often have this awkward moment when both aim for opposite sides – then change both, seeming to go for a kiss on the nose… and end in embarrassed laughter.
But now that you know “how” to kiss, would you know whom to kiss? Women kiss all their friends, acquaintances and even colleagues. They even get to kiss strangers when introduced to them in a social context (I get to kiss the parents of all my daughter’s friends at the sports club!). As a result, men kiss their woman friends. But they will also kiss other men, and this is where it gets complicated and I’m happy I am not a man! Relatives, close friends and members of a same club may kiss each other but may also shake hands, or even choose the way they will greet depending of their mood and the circumstances. To those people you kiss, you will even end your e-mails or text messages will a “kissy” or “kisses”, replacing the formal “sincerely” salutation!
As for me, this typical French custom was a strong incentive to get early to school. In my high school years, our little band formed in the morning before class, and each newcomer had to go round our circle and kiss everybody present. Four times each! As I realized that a slight hand wave didn’t cut it, I decided it was best suited to my self-conscious self! I probably wouldn’t have made it in politics in France, where hand shaking and cheek kissing are so important, and a newly elected presidential President François Hollande claimed he was the “president des bisous” (President of the kisses) after having kissed an entire kindergarten section!