The French kiss – how I finally learned how to do it!
Reading the title everyone probably has their own idea how things went down. I don’t know when it started but it became a regular thing in the office. Maybe there has been more of it lately with the approach of the summer where there is a negative correlation of a skirt’s length with the increase in the ambient temperature (the hotter the weather the shorter the dresses become). Maybe the quick light reflections of the bare, pale, bourgeois thighs caught my attention and I started noticing it more. But there she was, Madeleine, entering the office, as she does every day. The time changes every day, but is within the very loosely defined starting work hour, from 9 to 10. Still breathing deeply from walking up 3 flights of stairs trying to make up the time lost sitting in the car while in the busy streets of Nantes, she drops her leather bag, of course the bag is in accordance with latest must have French design, and her lunch box containing a light quiche, a salad, mostly air. She boots up her working station and while the windows loading screen is still on she heads in my direction. I, happy to see her, stand up to greet her. We get close… And we kiss. Once on the left cheek once on the right. The sweet peck is followed by: “Bonjour, ca va”. I reply – “Ca va bien, et toi”. Hello, how are you? Then, instantly she turns around, leaving a cloud of her perfume and heads over to greet the other colleagues. Everyone. Everyday. No exception. The Brits get a bit uncomfortable but power through it. They managed Brexit, they can probably handle a peck on the cheek. And this occurs in all the French offices. You always get a kiss, even if you are Marine La Pen.
And when Jean-Francois comes in, the procedure is similar. First he would come up the female colleagues, exchange 2 kisses. First on the left, then on the right cheek. Then, he goes over to the guys and says his “Salut!” with a very sturdy handshake. He does this until everyone is greeted. Everyday. No exception. Here, again the Brits are a bit resigned but power through with “Cheers!”.
As I was sent out to the factory I was able to see how important is the first greeting of the day. Walking down the assembly line I would be greeted by every single worker. Sometimes they would leave their position just to greet a friend. Because a colleague is more important than the turbine assembly. They have an expected lifetime of more than 25 years, they can wait. I would be overlooking the testing procedure of the generator in the control room and see the shift exchange. You would not believe the choreography and skill needed for 10 people (5 leaving and their substitutes for the afternoon coming in) to greet everyone present in a tiny 10 square meters’ room. Always with a smile and eyes full of respect. Everyone is acknowledged and respected. No difference between a worked and engineer, all the way to the CEO. I have experienced that myself when the location chief visited the branch in Nantes. He took his time to shake everyone’s hand. He was attentive enough to notice I was a new hire, asked about my background and previous experience.
If I were to stay in company for longer I would probably be greeting some of my guy colleagues with a kiss. Not because I would get a higher position. Well, in that case, they would be better of kissing my ass rather than my cheek. But (no pun intended) why they would do it is because we would become friends. And you can distinguish people who are good friends by the fact they meet each with a peck on the cheeks.
Back to the kiss. It is more than a greeting. It is a part of the culture etiquette. It even has its own set of terms. The sole action of an air kiss is called Faire la Bise. To do a kiss. Please do distinguish:
Embrasser (verb) = to kiss
S’embrasser (reflexive verb) = to kiss each other
DO not mistake the very common noun “un baiser” with the vulgar verb “baiser”.
baiser (verb) = used to be “to kiss”, but has switched meaning through time. Now it means to f..k.
It has happened. I got some strange looks. More worryingly I got some cheeky looks as well.
Of course, every etiquette comes with a set of rules. From my short, one month long , experience I can try my best to outline an operational manual:
Who kisses who?
Women always kiss women, men always kiss women. Man may kiss other man, usually a product of a long and great friendship.
When to kiss?
In a daily setting when meeting a friend and when saying goodbye. Even if you just spoke about the weather. Sometimes the kissing takes more time than the real conversation. Kissing is a must.
In your office, you might get away with only one kiss when arriving. But remember the first greeting is a must.
In a larger meeting or a social gathering. You greet everyone. This time not all at once but eventually all will be greeted. You may start the evening with a handshake but leave with a kiss.
When meeting someone for the first time – this is a grey area. You are alone with your instincts here. Most probably yes.
Social ties influence.
Family members always kiss other family members. Young kids are encouraged to kiss everyone. Everyone kisses young kids. Position and seniority condition if you faire la bise. You may kiss your superior, your boss for example, only if he/she leans in first.
- Smile and lean in. Nobody wants a grumpy hello. Also hold your breath if you had any garlic.
- Turn your face away in a 45 degree angle. And they say you will never need trigonometry in real life.
- Touch faces. The length is infinitesimally short. The applied pressure varies on how close the people are. I also suspect it has a pattern of seasonality and is longer and firmer in winter in order to warm up your cheeks. In summer as short as possible. Because sweat. Will see if my theory will hold up.
- Release a tiny peck sound. Smacking the lips and NOT saying the mwah mwhah sound (the fake girlfriend greeting in all 90s sitcoms).
- Move away and switch cheeks.
- Add class and finesse.
- NEVER hug. French people almost never hug. It is even reflected in their word for a hug “une étreinte” which does not mean a hug, but it’s kind of an old-fashioned word that describes the action of holding someone in your arm.
- Repeat OR don’t.
There will always be a discussion which cheek to kiss first. I was told it can even depend on the region. In the north-west the etiquette is to kiss the right cheek first by leaning to the left. Combien de bises? That’s French for ‘How many kisses’, kiss is usually double. But, again, depending on the customs it can be repeated 4, 5 times. Someone even made a map to avoid all this uncertainty.
And as weird I might have found it in the beginning it is something very easy to get accustomed to. But it does not come easy for some people. Recently I had a hilarious situation. I had a friend visiting me from Croatia. Provider, manly, cold, confused engineer. We went out for some drinks and we met my French friend. I warned her to take it easy with the bise. What I didn’t do is to warn the rest of Nantes, including her roommate that walked by the terrace and came in to say hi. Of course politely she went to introduce herself to my friend. She casually leaned in for the kiss. My friend jolted out of his seat. His face cringed up with terror caused a laughter chain reaction on our table and even around the bar. Enough to make my nose a fountain for my Belgian triple beer.
As funny as it was it was also a catalyst to accelerate a relationship build up. Be it in a professional or a friendly environment. In this case, my friend meeting a new person. Another positive side to it is that you are able to give your best first impression. Is there a better way than memorizing the name of the girl whom you have just met. In the end you have no excuse to forget it, she has, after all just kissed you and whispered her name in your ear.
Ice broken, can not get any more awkward than that. Wiped the beer foam off my face. Smooth sailing ahead!
PS - the featured image above the post title is from one of my favorite french movies "Blue is the warmest colour". Recommendation if you need to kill time until my next post.