It is a double paradox that a people like the English or Americans 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 more formally polite French neighbours should attach such vital importance to seizing the hands of those they frequently have only the slightest acquaintance with.
Though shaking hands plays an important part in both Anglo-Saxon and French business culture as a means of expressing sincerity and cordiality when meeting, parting, being introduced or concluding deals, squeezing the hands of others is not systematically resorted to in day-to-day Anglo-Saxon life. In the normal course of events it is mainly restricted to those friends and relatives you’ve not had the pleasure of seeing for a considerable length of time, and is more often confined to men (women tend to kiss). And when you’re introduced to strangers at a social gathering in England you can even get away with a simple ‘hello’, accompanied by a friendly nod of the head. As a result, the Englishman can go for days, even weeks, without being called upon to slip his hand into that of another.
The newly-landed Anglo-Saxon expat would do well to note, that France social etiquette requires you to make repeated daily use of the handshake as a tangible sign of your friendly inclinations towards other males, and that staring uncomprehendingly at a Frenchman’s proffered hand can not only be a source of considerable offence, but cause you to run the considerable risk – though some allowances might possibly be made for that legendary English reserve – of being labelled unfriendly or even impolite. So, whenever you meet a French male acquaintance (you don’t need to know him all that well) in the supermarket or the High Street, shaking hands should become a reflex or, if he draws first (as, being French, he almost certainly will), to seize his hand warmly in yours. This is expected, even if you don’t have time for a chat. And if you can spare a moment to converse, it’s important to note that a second poignée de main, though not systematic, can be required when you part.
If your male friend or acquaintance is accompanied by someone you’re not personally acquainted with, you must first shake hands with the former and then, since it would be impolite to exclude him, with the other. This can, of course, depend on circumstances and the numbers involved. Generally speaking, however, it will be appreciated as a sign of warmth and conviviality. The other day, for instance, we played a round of golf with two French friends. Afterwards, the three of us had a drink together on the terrace of our clubhouse. As we were sipping our beers a pal of one of our friends arrived, shook his hand, and then – since it would have been impolite to ignore the other two of us – proceeded to shake ours and that of our other friend. 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 – especially appropriate in a socially-oriented golf club context. Nevertheless, Anglophone expats may be relieved to know that if you meet the same male friend or acquaintance for a second time in the same day you’re not expected to shake hands again (though normally this won’t go amiss), and the simple recall, ‘On s’est déjà serré la main’ will suffice.
As far as greetings between male and female are concerned the rules are a little different as the type of greeting will depend very much on your degree of friendship. If you’re being formally introduced for the very first time shaking hands (even between women) would be necessary. Things are more delicate, however, if you’re already acquainted. Once again, depending on how well you know each other, you might offer her your hand or simply greet her with a polite ‘bonjour’. Be aware, however, that, 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. If you know her well, the bise, the cheek-kiss (more about this later), will more likely be resorted to.