Mash WordUp

Things that I think and do

“I don’t speak French, I just kiss that way”

handshake fail

Unless you’ve spent an extended period of time in France (or most other central European countries) or you feature in Made in Chelsea, the idea of cheek-kissing when you meet a friend probably seems strange.  If you think about it, it is an odd way of greeting someone, even if you know them very well – why not just give a hearty handshake or perhaps a jovial clap on the shoulder?

For some, even just a smile and a “hello” is enough to convey a sufficient level of recognition.  No doubt the Daily Mail would have us believe that kissing will give us cancer and will open the doors to floods of immigrants, facts which may be off-putting to those looking for a more continental greeting.

In France, however, greetings are very important and anything less than a handshake is thought of as a bit strange, if not rude.  In the nine months I spent there last year, I’m pretty sure I only just managed to learn how to properly greet people.  It’s far more difficult than you might think.

First of all, there’s the conventional French verbal greeting to conquer.  Generally, it’s safe to say: “bonjour, ça va?” (although you can use ‘salut’ if you’re on informal terms).  Helpfully, the answer to ‘ça va?’ can be ‘ça va’ again, which saves elaborating on the question if you’re familiar enough to ask how someone is but not so much to be particularly bothered by the answer.  It’s completely possible – indeed quite likely-  that a greeting conversation will go thus:
Me : Salut, ça va?
Unsuspecting French counterpart: Salut! Oui ça va.  Ça va ?
Me : Ça va, merci.
Note the minimal elaborative detail and the use of only twelve words to greet each other and establish that we’re both doing quite well, thank you.

Why such little conversational interaction, you might be wondering.  Well, while this thrilling conversation is happening, you’ve embarked upon the intricate social dance of the physical greeting: the handshake or even the cheek-kiss: the bises (or ‘the beez’ for those not up to scratch with French pronunciation).

I will point out here that when I say ‘kissing’, it generally happens that no lips are involved and the two parties simply lightly bump cheeks in an imitation of kissing.  If you get an actual kiss you should probably take notice as it could mean promising news in terms of romantic interest.

Speaking as a chap, and an English one at that, kissing as a greeting isn’t something that feels particularly natural.  Admittedly even in France you probably wouldn’t kiss someone if you were meeting them for the very first time, but once you’ve made their acquaintance it becomes the normal way to greet them.  Even men cheek-kiss each other when they’ve reached a suitable level of friendship, something that you definitely wouldn’t find in England (unless, as I mentioned, you live in Chelsea).  I am currently at this level of camaraderie with a small number of male friends in fact, and it’s quite gratifying to have unlocked this achievement.

Perhaps kissing is seen as a more intimate interaction in the UK, where people tend to use handshakes or hugs far more (obviously I can’t speak for everyone, but this is from what experience I do have).  In France, however, the initial greeting is a very important part of social etiquette.  Most people will go out of their way to shake your hand or kiss you, and no matter how often you see someone during the day, it’s quite likely that you’ll perform this small social dance each time.

And I’m coming around to the whole idea.  It dissipates a lot of the tension that is inherent in meeting new people, or greeting people you don’t know particularly well; it straightaway creates a small bond and a bit of mutual respect.

Furthermore, because you actually have to make an effort to greet someone in this fashion, it makes the greet-ee feel a touch more easily accepted.  Of course, a handshake only works really well (especially in the respect department) if you don’t cock it up and end up with a limp grip your counterpart’s hand – embarrassing because you wish you’d gone all the way into the hand and the other guy is silently judging you for having a girly handshake.

Be that as it may, and assuming that most of you are more capable than I am of judging when to start gripping, it makes for a much warmer welcome when each time you see someone you get the same greeting.  (I also find that I focus too much on getting the handshake right and end up not hearing what the other person’s name is; it rather cancels out the achievement of a manly handshake if you have to ask them to repeat their name.)

But why all the kissing?  It’s famously prevalent in southern Europe and France, but is also actually a common greeting across most of the world – though not, interestingly, so much in the English-speaking parts of the globe (or, of course, Germany).

I’m just guessing here (obviously; I don’t have any actual research to back this up, because that would be cheating and also detract from the whole ‘my-experiences-and-reactions’ reasoning behind the blog), but as a greeting a cheek-kiss is meant to show familiarity, friendship and a certain level of intimacy between two people.  (A handshake, incidentally, used to signify that neither party was holding a weapon).

I would also imagine that those countries that don’t do it find the idea of kissing someone as a greeting too intimate and invasive, which can tell us about varying mindsets surrounding personal space and intimacy around the world.  I once heard, interestingly, that British people tend to subconsciously move physically back from whoever they’re in a conversation with, while Europeans tend to lean forward, thereby demonstrating the difference in interactive behaviour and the concept of personal space.  At least, that’s what I think he said – I couldn’t really hear as I was too far away.

I’m in danger of straying into the tricky world of amateur psychology here, so we’ll just leave that point there and assume it’s all true.  I can tell you for a fact that kissing isn’t always regarded as demonstrating a higher level of connaissance than a simple handshake –it depends on the basic relationship between two people as well.

While I used to get some cheek-bump action from one of my horn playing classmates, it would be too weird if I’d greeted my teacher in the same way (especially as they were both men – though even if one was a woman it might be a bit odd).

At the same time, however, if I met a new female person (or a girl, as I believe they’re usually called), I was more likely to greet them with a cheek-kiss rather than a handshake – because we all know that shaking hands with a girl when she’s an informal acquaintance is a bit strange.

There is always a certain etiquette involved in the whole gesture: if you’re meeting someone for the first time, a man will probably shake your hand but a woman might kiss you (or might shake your hand at first but kiss when you leave); men that you know quite well and are on quite friendly terms with might start using the cheek-bump, unless they’re in a position of authority or you’re in a more formal situation; and of course personal preference comes into the matter.
As well as understanding the etiquette, you’ve obviously got to master the technique.  Basically, go to the right first, then the left, and in Strasbourg it’s just two kisses – and you say ‘salut/bonjour’before the kiss and ‘ça va?‘ afterwards (or during if you’re feeling brave).  To keep you on your toes, most regions in France vary the number of kisses, so there’s always a risk of becoming locked in a lengthy greeting and straining your neck.

Once this is successfully navigated, it becomes quite edifying to be greeted in such a way, and creates an inclusive feel that a handshake, however firm, doesn’t always give.  Also, I hear from a reliable source (well, from UberFacts on Twitter) that it’s actually much more hygienic than handshakes; presumably because fewer people clean their hands than they clean their faces.

Perhaps the UK should embrace the cheek-kiss more widely as a greeting, and get it out of Made in Chelsea and into the real world.  For one thing, I wouldn’t have to worry about limp handshakes as much.
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This entry was posted on August 5, 2013 by in Culture, France, Humour and tagged , , , , , , , , , .
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