It is a measure of the drastic changes in English attitudes towards kissing in general, and cheek kissing in particular that what is now more and more accepted as a standard form of greeting would have raised eyebrows – even shocked (especially between males) – three or four decades ago when it was mainly confined to theatrical types whose off-stage lives were marked by a general tendency to overdo. On the French side of the Channel, however, ‘faire la bise’ has long since been a common way of showing others you are friendlily inclined. Who, then in France kisses on the cheek, when and how do they do it?
Who cheek kisses?
Apart from special occasions such as the New Year when, traditionally, at the stroke of midnight, even those who are little more than strangers will kiss each other on the cheek, it will be no surprise to learn that a form of greeting which forces you into such close proximity with others that you can smell their make-up, after-shave (and sometimes even their breath) is resorted to between those whose degree of familiarity permits this mutual bringing together of cheeks and lips. it is generally limited, therefore, to relatives and friends. A cheek kiss is usually bestowed by women on women, and men on women. Nevertheless, even though in the past exclusively male cheek kissing took place only between close relatives, i.e. brothers, fathers and sons (and perhaps occasionally very close male friends), today there is an increasing trend among young Frenchmen to replace the handshake by ‘la bise’ when greeting both male and female friends of a similar age.
When do you do it?
In convivial circumstances, however, men can kiss the cheeks of women who are more acquaintances than friends. This is especially the case when you are members of the same sporting club or association. When I go into the clubhouse of my local golf club, for example, I systematically cheek kiss all the women I know (while shaking hands with the men). And I’ve even known a complete woman stranger who was accompanying a friend to present her cheek for kissing (rather than simply holding out her hand) on me being introduced to her. In France, however, there can be a considerable gap between private and public behaviour, so the Brit abroad mustn’t be surprised if the woman who readily offers him her cheek at the golf club simply wishes him ‘Bonjour’ in the High Street.
Adults normally kiss small children on the cheek. Shaking hands would be inappropriately formal.
How do you do it?
Even though hugging would be considered far too intimate, placing your hand half way down the lady’s arm (not on her shoulder) would be a more natural accompaniment, and far more acceptable than keeping them both stuck to your sides. As far as the kissing itself is concerned, the first question we might ask is which cheek do you begin with? Well, basically, that’s for participants to decide. Personally, without really knowing why (perhaps it’s because I’m right-handed), I usually go for her left one first, and when she realizes this, the lady usually co-operates by holding it out. But, as with shaking hands, you can leave it to her to take the initiative. And what about the number of times? Well, this is, in fact, a regional thing. Where I live, thank goodness, I’ve never been witness to more than one on each. But, depending on where you are, it can be once on one, once on the other, and then back for another on the first. And in some regions, apparently, it can be as many as two on each.
It’s important to note that, in reality, the word ‘kiss’ is frequently a misnomer. For rather than planting your lips on the cheeks of the other, the technique usually consists in briefly rubbing your chops together, and at the same time making a kissing movement with your lips. The result is that most lip contact is with the surrounding air – though I do have a copain who actually believes in firmly planting a sensual kiss on the cheeks of a woman he really likes. Spectacle-wearers should be careful as potentially nasty collisions can occur and, similarly, if your wearing a cap with a long nib it’s far more prudent to take it off.
Brits abroad would do well to note that in France cheek kissing is a manifestation of varying degrees of friendly affection, and has no sexual connotations. On the contrary, kissing on the lips is indulged in exclusively by men and women sharing an intimate physical relationship (i.e. husband and wife or homosexual partners), and never by male and female members of the same family (i.e. brother and sister, or mother and son), as is sometimes the case in Britain.
Hand kissing (la baise-main)
That romantic gesture of ‘old school’ French gallantry which consists in the male bringing his lips into light, respectful contact with the back of a lady’s outstretched hand is now less common in higher social and diplomatic circles – though a former Président de la République (a reputed woman chaser) frequently used it when welcoming foreign lady Heads of State. Even though the hand kiss is, apparently, still quite common in Central and Eastern Europe, the French – in their everyday life, at least – usually resort to it as a source of affectionate amusement. In this respect, I remember one particular occurrence some years ago when we went on a coach trip organized by an association we were members of. Having set off well before dawn one Sunday morning, we stopped for coffee and croissants at a motorway café. The driver parked his coach alongside a Polish truck. Now in France it is forbidden for heavy trucks to circulate on Sundays, and we couldn’t help noticing that one of the two drivers, a young man (he must only have been in his early twenties), had – even at this early hour – found no better way of whiling away what was going to be a long, inactive day than by ingurgitating the contents of a bottle of vodka. On seeing us get out of the coach, he leapt from his cabin (still clutching his bottle), and proceeded to bestow on each lady a mockingly respectful hand kiss as she descended. Not only did these middle-aged ladies find the gesture hilarious but, I suspect, were secretly flattered by his attention – so much so that a group photo was taken with our grinning young trucker in the middle.