Hand Shaking – What all Brits Abroad Should Know.
It is a double paradox that a people whose perception of politeness requires them to make total strangers believe they are their instant bosom friends should become so coldly distant when it comes to shaking hands, while their French neighbours, so formally polite when greeting those they’ve never met before, should attach such vital importance to warmly seizing the hands of others at least twenty times per day.
Though the body contact involved in shaking hands is an important part of Anglo-Saxon business culture, used to express sincerity and cordiality when meeting, parting, being introduced or sealing deals, a verbal only greeting is the custom in everyday British life where squeezing the hands of others is mainly restricted to those close friends and relatives you’ve not had the pleasure of seeing for a considerable length of time, and is usually confined to men (women tend to kiss). And even when you’re introduced to total strangers on social occasions a simple ‘Hello’ will usually suffice. As a result, in the normal course of events you can go for days, even weeks, without slipping your hand into that of another. The newly-landed British expat would do well to note, however, that in France common social etiquette requires a man to make frequent daily use of the poignée de main as a tangible sign of his pacific intentions towards other males, and that staring uncomprehendingly at a Frenchman’s proffered hand can be the cause of considerable offence. So, when and who do you shake hands with in France? Though there are always exceptions, and much may depend on circumstances, here are some general rules and tips:
Even though you can get away with a simple ‘Hello’ accompanied by a friendly nod of the head when being introduced to strangers at a social gathering in England, this is not deemed enough in France where men (and usually women) will always shake hands. In a business context the French – both men and women – shake hands in very much the same situations as in England.
Greeting a friend or acquaintance
As previously indicated, shaking hands is mainly a male custom, so when a man meets a male friend or acquaintance in, say, the High Street or local supermarket they will automatically shake hands. Even if you don’t have time for a chat you must stop long enough to exchange a quick handshake. And if you do have time to converse, a second poignée de main is required when you part. In both cases the handshake should be accompanied by a cordial ‘Bonjour’, and in the second by an equally friendly ‘Au revoir’. When a man meets a woman, or a woman a woman he or she barely knows, they might simply say ‘Bonjour’ without shaking hands. In theory, at least, the rules of polite French etiquette require a man to shake a woman’s hand only if she first offers him hers. Brits abroad will be relieved to know that if you meet the same person for a second time in the same day you’re not expected to shake hands again, and the simple recall ‘On s’est déjà serré la main’ will suffice. It would, however, be polite to say ‘Re-bonjour’ (literally ‘Hello again’), or simply ‘Re’.
Greeting friends of a friend
If the friend you meet is accompanied by friends of his own whom you don’t know personally, you must first shake hands with the former, and then, under normal circumstances with the others. This can, however, be a matter for personal discernment, and dependent on circumstances and numbers involved. The other day, for example, after playing a round of golf with three French friends, we had a drink together on the terrace of our clubhouse. As we were sipping our beer a pal of one of my friends arrived, shook his hand, and then – since it would have been impolite to ignore us – proceeded to shake mine and that of our other friend, even though he was a complete stranger to both of us. He could, of course, have simply bid us a friendly ‘Bonjour’, but the physical contact involved in shaking hands added an extra touch of cordiality.
When a man arrives at a social gathering, it’s considered polite to go round and shake hands with everybody he knows (and even, in circumstances similar to the one described above, with complete strangers). When numbers make this impracticable you could possibly get away with a ‘Bonjour tout le monde’ accompanied by a friendly wave of the hand. The handshake is less important when you leave, but still appreciated – especially by those you’ve been in conversation with. Once again, when this is not convenient a general ‘Au revoir tout le monde’ would be acceptable. A woman would not normally be expected to do the round of handshaking. A man and woman who know each other reasonably well (or are members of the same sporting club or association) would normally kiss on the cheek.
At the Workplace
Once again, it’s important for a man to go round and shake hands with all his male colleagues while kissing women on the cheek. Care must be taken not to miss anybody out as this would be considered bad manners and could, therefore, cause offence. So much a part of polite everyday French culture is this that even the boss will go round the office and factory each morning shaking hands with all staff members, regardless of the position they occupy in the company. Similarly, on arriving at company meetings men shake hands with men and cheek kiss women colleagues. The Brit or American might think this sort of ritual is a source of much time-wasting. This can certainly be true. A French friend of mine recently informed me that in the company where he works, on arriving each morning one employee will systematically go round both office and factory shaking hands with or cheek kissing each of a total of around 50 male and female colleagues. He reckons that at least twenty minutes is spent doing this each day!
It’s also recommended that you shake hands with the mechanic or the person who welcomes you (if it’s a woman this is not required – unless she offers you hers) when you take your car along for a service, or when your plumber rolls up to replace a tap washer. So much importance is attached to this that, even if his hands are full, dirty or wet, a French tradesman will frequently offer an elbow, a wrist or even a little finger. If you’re greeting him outside in cold weather, don’t forget to take off your glove.
It’s considered more appropriate to cheek kiss small children. You could, nevertheless, shake the hand of an older boy. He’d probably be flattered by this since, in his eyes, you’re treating him like a man.
The Handshake Technique
The handshake itself should be relatively brief but firm – une poignée de main molle (a limp handshake) will do nothing to convince the other of your sincerity. Nevertheless, it shouldn’t be a bone cruncher, and the French tend neither to pump nor linger. It’s also important to look at the person whose hand you’re clasping. If you’re talking to someone else at the time, break off the conversation, verbally greet the person you’re shaking hands with and look him in the eye. There’s nothing I hate more than a man silently extending his hand in my direction while continuing to talk to (and look at) another. It gives me the impression I don’t count for very much. The double-handed shake (i.e. using one hand to shake that of someone, while firmly squeezing his forearm with the other) is normally confined to politics. In a world where the word ‘never’ usually means ‘not today’, it is not a proof of real sincerity. And placing your non-shaking hand on the other’s shoulder, or using it to pat or slap him on the back are also not guaranteed to convince – though a previous Président de la République did frequently resort to both.