An article in my local newspaper informs us that the mayoress of a village in the Isère département recently sent an email to all her staff informing them that she wished to put a stop to that traditional French practice of greeting one another with a cheek-kiss (‘la bise’) each morning on arriving at work. The reasons given? Firstly the obvious one that it exposes you to the risk of receiving a good dose of somebody else’s germs; but more surprisingly because it reflects male-female inequality. It’s certainly true that ‘faire la bise’ is more a female thing as a man is more likely to shake another male’s hand when he arrives at work – even though things do tend to be changing. For while in the past cheek-kissing between males was confined to close members of the same family (i.e. father and son or brothers) it is now being more and more resorted to by men who are simply colleagues or friends. Though many people found our lady mayor’s decision trifling, even stupid, it does have the merit of opening a discussion on a practice which in France is systematically used as a greeting both outside and inside the place of work.
One reason our mayoress doesn’t seem to have mentioned is the fact that, depending on the number of employees and the number of kisses (usually limited to one on each chop but for cultural, regional or social reasons this can range from one to five) cheek-kissing your work colleagues can take up a significant amount of working time. On arriving at work each morning one of my copains has confessed to spending the first ten minutes going round office and workshop cheek-kissing all the women. But though important to many it can be a tiresome, even unpleasant obligation for some. Is this all that 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? What’s more, wearers of spectacles or sunglasses should be especially careful as their frames have been known to inflict a nasty poke in the eye. And isn’t it a show of familiarity which in many cases doesn’t really exist ? After all a wave of the hand, a smile or a warm handshake could be nearer the mark.
Mind you, the word ‘kiss’ is often a misnomer: for rather than planting your lips on the cheek 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 of the lip contact is with the surrounding air. However, I do have another copain who believes in firmly planting his lips on the cheeks of women he feels real affection for. The problem is that in France cheek-kissing is such a longstanding tradition that it’s almost become a ritual. And in the more trendy circles it’s even strongly advised not only to cheek-kiss colleagues but to systematically use the familiar ‘tu’ as well as the first name of the person you greet. And this includes the boss. Mind you, it hasn’t always been so. In the past the upper crust considered it to be not at all chic, very provincial, and only for the plebs. Nowadays, however, psychologists will tell you that faire la bise is a way of informing others that you recognize him or her both as an individual and a member of your same group. So, on the whole, refusing to cheek-kiss your workmates would stand a very good chance of being seen as an act of unfriendliness and/or a wish to set yourself apart.
As to the question of male-female inequality it’s true that cheek-kissing tends to belong more to the female domain; and we can always argue that what is female has more negative connotations than what is male. But can we really say that the act in itself is a reflection of inequality? When men don’t cheek-kiss other men or are reluctant to cheek-kiss a woman doesn’t this rather echo a need to delimit what is male from the female ? Isn’t this a distinction which in the non-Muslim world at least is becoming more and more blurred ?