At friendly social gatherings it’s considered polite for a man to go round and shake hands with everybody he knows (and also, as described above, with friends of friends he hasn’t met before). 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 – particularly by those you’ve been in conversation with. Slinking off without saying a word is not to be recommended – so, once again, when shaking everybody’s hand is not convenient, a general ‘au revoir tout le monde’ won’t go amiss.
In similar informal circumstances a woman would be expected to cheek-kiss those men and women she was on friendly terms with, and would normally be required only to shake the hands of the men she had not previously met (though, in very informal circumstances, she could even cheek-kiss these). Shaking hands with a woman she was not previously acquainted with would be reserved for more formal occasions, and at parties and other friendly social occasions it would be more appropriate to cheek- kiss.
Similar rules apply at the workplace where, on arrival, it’s important for a man to go round and shake hands with his closest 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 cause offence. So much a part of polite everyday French culture is this that, in many cases, even the boss will go round the office and factory each morning shaking hands with both male and female staff, 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 ours informs us that, in the company where he works, one employee systematically goes 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 morning!
It’s also recommended that you shake hands with your plumber when he rolls up to replace a tap washer. In fact, so much importance is attached to this that if his hands are full, dirty or wet a French tradesman will frequently offer a forearm, a wrist – or even a little finger! If you’re greeting him outside in cold weather don’t forget to take off your glove. And even though it’s more appropriate to cheek-kiss small children you could, nevertheless, shake the hand of an older boy. He could be flattered by this since, in his eyes, you’re treating him as you would a man.
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. Personally, there’s nothing we personally hate more than a man silently extending his hand in our direction while continuing to talk to (and look at) another. It gives us the impression we don’t count for very much. The double-handed shake (i.e. using one hand to shake that of someone, while placing your non-shaking hand either on it or halfway up his arm) is normally confined to politicians. In a world where the word ‘never’ frequently means ‘not today’, it’s not a proof of 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!
Dreaming of moving to France ? Thinking of spending a holiday there ? Or would you simply like to know more about the French way of life ? In this free Ebook you’ll find 369 tips to help you get your bearings in a country where it’s easy to feel all at sea. They’re based on the author’s own observations, experiences (and mistakes) during 45 years of mainly peaceful cohabitation with the French. Available in Kindle, Epub and PDF format. Get started here : http://calloffrance.com/free-ebook-offer