It’s 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 considered as an acceptable 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 ostentatious affectation. On the French side of the Channel, however, la bise, the cheek-kiss, has long since been a common form of greeting.
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 let their hair down enough to cheek-kiss one another, faire la bise is a friendlier, more informal way for men and women to greet each other than shaking hands (hardly surprising with an act which forces you into such close proximity with others that you can smell their make-up, after-shave and sometimes even their breath) and, therefore, usually indulged in by those whose degree of familiarity permits. Unlike men who shake hands when they encounter members of the same sex, women will cheek-kiss other women (handshaking between women is formal and only resorted to when being introduced on official occasions). Cheek-kissing is also common between men and women who are on friendly terms, or simply because they’re close working colleagues or members of the same sporting club or association. When we walk into the clubhouse of our local golf club, for example, we systematically cheek-kiss all the women we know (while shaking hands with the men). And we’ve even known a woman stranger accompanying a friend to offer us her cheek (rather than more formally holding out her hand) on being introduced. In France, however, there can be a considerable gap between private and public behaviour – so you mustn’t be surprised if the woman who readily offers you her cheek at the golf club simply wishes you ‘bonjour’ in the High Street. And though in the past male cheek-kissing took place only between close male relatives, i.e. brothers, fathers and sons (and perhaps very close male friends), today there is a growing trend among young French people (and even older ones) to use la bise on a daily basis when greeting others of a similar age.
As far as the cheek-kissing technique itself is concerned, the first question which springs to mind is which chop do you begin with? Well, basically, that’s for participants to decide. Personally, without really knowing why (perhaps it’s because we’re right-handed), we usually go for the 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 do you do with your mits? While pulling the lady towards you in an intimate hug would be going too far (the French don’t really go in for hugging), placing your hand half way down her arm (or even on her shoulder) would be a more natural accompaniment, and far more acceptable than keeping them both rigidly stuck down your sides. And how many times do you do it? Well, this is, in fact, a regional thing. Where we live, thank goodness, we’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 to the first for a second helping. And in some regions it’s a ritualistic two on each.
What’s more, the word ‘kiss’ is more often a misnomer. Rather than planting your lips on the cheeks of the other, the technique often consists in briefly rubbing your chops together, and at the same time making a kissing movement with your lips. The result is that most of the lip contact is with the surrounding air – though we do have a copain who believes in firmly planting his lips on the cheeks of women he feels real affection for. Wearers of spectacles or sunglasses should be careful as their frames have been known to inflict nasty pokes in the eye. And, similarly, if you’re sporting a cap with a long nib, you’ve got far more room for manoeuvre if you take it off.
Anglo Saxons must also be aware that in France cheek-kissing is a manifestation of friendly affection, and has no sexual connotations. On the contrary, kissing on the lips is indulged in by those 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.
That romantic gesture of ‘old school’ French gallantry, la baise-main, 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) systematically used it as a way of promoting the legendary French touch when welcoming foreign lady heads of state. Though the hand-kiss is, apparently, still quite common in Central and Eastern Europe, the French – in their everyday life, at least – look upon it with affectionate amusement. And on the rare occasions when it is used it is bestowed on the older, usually married woman.
In this respect, we 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 breakfast coffee and croissants at a motorway café. Our driver parked his coach alongside a Polish truck. Now in France it’s 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 have been in his middle 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 step out of the coach, he leapt down from his cabin (still clutching his bottle), and proceeded to bestow on each lady a mockingly respectful hand-kiss the moment she’d placed a foot on the ground. Not only did these middle-aged ladies find the gesture hilarious but, we suspect, were secretly flattered by his attention – so much so that they readily consented to a group photo being taken with our grinning young trucker in the middle.
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