petite anglaise

December 14, 2004

french kissing

Filed under: french touch, misc — petiteanglaise @ 4:55 pm

A group of young French teenagers caught my attention in the metro yesterday. There was something familiar about the way the girls were talking in louder than necessary voices, laughing too much and sneaking covert glances at a group of boys standing nearby. This sight transported me back two decades, and I saw my eleven year old self catching the school bus. As I attended a girls’ grammar school, the only exposure my friends and I had to opposite sex was on daily journeys to and from school. Our aim was to occupy the front seat on the top deck, where we took centre stage and ‘performed’, hopeful that we might catch the eye of the heartthrob of the moment.

These childish attempts at seduction were unsuccessful, of course, as you will know if you read my previous post about national health glasses. A pity, with hindsight, because the object of my affections went on to become a national tv star, and even dated Ulrike Jonsson for a while.

But let’s get back to the French teenagers. Their flirtatious behaviour was identical to any English teenager’s, except for one important detail. As each one neared their metro stop, the conversation came to a seemingly pre-agreed momentary halt whilst each and every fellow schoolmate was given la bise. Imagine how potentially loaded with information that innocent gesture could be. You could choose to kiss the air, accidentally-on-purpose brush a cheek with your lips, or execute proper lip smacking pecks of varying durations. As you change from one side to the other, you could conceivably brush the other person’s lips. Quite frankly, highly strung as I was at that age I think I would have swooned at such intimate contact.

La bise is second nature to the French. For a foreigner like myself it is a minefield.

First of all, there is the matter of how many kisses you are supposed to bestow. In Paris the norm seems to be two. In certain Parisian suburbs however you are expected to give four (which must be time consuming when you have to take your leave of a party of ten people). In some regions three is the customary number. Many a time I have proffered my cheeks twice, only to find that I was expected to go two full rounds.

The other ‘unknown’ which makes things awkward is that I have never understood which side I am supposed to start with. Whichever I choose seems to be instinctively wrong: causing an embarrassed direction change in mid-air to correct the trajectory. I’m sure if I asked Mr Frog which side to start on he would say that there is no right or wrong answer. It probably comes under the heading of innate French knowledge which I will never by privy to, however many years I spend in France.

How does one know in which situations an ‘I work in fashion daahling’ air-kiss is expected, or when it is appropriate to give an enthusiastic peck on one/more cheeks? I invariably air kiss (English reserve: I prefer to give too little rather than too much) and when the other person plants a proper kiss on my cheek and I feel like I’ve insulted them by not reciprocating.

Last dilemma: to kiss or not to kiss? The other evening I noticed Tadpole’s playmate’s mum giving our shared nanny a kiss when she greeted her. That would never feel natural to me. Nanny gets la bise on two special occasions only: her birthday and at New Year (when it is compulsory to kiss everyone).

The plot thickens when I return to the UK: at some point during my prolonged absence, continental-style cheek kissing was adopted by my peers. I don’t know if it’s the circles I move in or a more generalised phenomenon. So now I am faced with a similar dilemma when I greet my long-lost English friends. What is expected: a shy, awkward English ‘hello’ with no physical contact whatsoever, a kiss on one cheek and an affectionate squeeze, an air kiss on both sides?

The solution: read the book pictured above, written by a person with a reassuringly posh sounding double-barrelled name and dubious royal credentials.

On second thoughts, this one might be more suitable for beginners/dunces like myself.

36 Comments

  1. To help you with the right number of kisses, Dan has posted a map here: http://glacons.blogspot.com/2004/11/french-kissing-habits.html
    But it’s unfortunately never accurate.

    I suspect French made it very complex in order to have “opportunities” to teach cute foreigners how to “faire la bise” properly. Bless!

    Comment by Chninkel — December 14, 2004 @ 5:15 pm

  2. I pretty much always head to my right, which seems to have the most success as most people seem to be right-handed (right-headed?) and do the same thing. Of course, god forbid someone go in the other sense, because then I am totally flustered.

    I even remember seeing a lot of young people in Dinan only give 1 bise (which seemed weird even to the frenchy husband, so perhaps those were just crazy young’uns).

    Comment by kim — December 14, 2004 @ 6:14 pm

  3. I never know which side to start with, or how many kisses are expected : 2,3 or 4 ?

    And I always feel awkward when I get it wrong. I wish I could just say “hello” and be considered impolite !

    Comment by Jenny — December 14, 2004 @ 6:17 pm

  4. and NOT be considered impolite..

    Comment by Jenny — December 14, 2004 @ 6:18 pm

  5. I hate kissing, and for a while in pt I could get away with getting a handshake since they reckoned I was just a stuffy english person who shunned physical contact with people she doesn’t know (I am in fact a stuffy english person who shuns physical contact with people I don’t know), but now I’m expected to do the kissy kissy stuff. yuk. it is regularly used to make people feel embarrassed on purpose by silly and snobby lisbonites since they make up day by day how many kissies they’ll be doing, one, two, three or none and which side to start. tossers.

    Comment by vit — December 14, 2004 @ 6:28 pm

  6. When I first went to France I asked Catherine about this kissing business, she just laughed at me, so I was no wiser. I ended up devising my own method. Give everyone a hug if they are close friends. It seemed to work once they got used to this mad Anglais who didn’t know how to kiss.

    Comment by Mike Da Hat — December 14, 2004 @ 7:11 pm

  7. We have only been down here in the mountains for two years but the kissing thing is sooo difficult to get right. it seems in this region that on the first two or three meetings its handshakes then they decide when to start kissing. Usually this is 4 times starting on the right but not actual contact.
    if you get to know a person/family really well even the men kiss same as the italians! god, its so difficult sometimes for a brit brought up with that traditional english reserve! i suppose we are getting the hang of it and haven’t offended to many people though.

    Comment by aveyron peasant — December 14, 2004 @ 8:23 pm

  8. In Islam, we kiss-kiss too… only the problem becomes even more complicated, because there are cultural requirements from all over the WORLLD to deal with.

    So when i see a sister diving in for ‘the peck(s)’, i just wave them off impatiently and give them a nice three-breath hug. Nobody seems to mind too much. Converts get away with EVERYTHING!

    Comment by anan — December 14, 2004 @ 9:20 pm

  9. I too have started to experience the bise back in England amongst friends and certain younger or more sophisticated family members.
    I was wondering if they were doing it for my benefit (“here’s our glamourous continental relative/mate, better try that cheek-kissing malarky in case she thinks we’re a bunch of awkward insular cold fish”). But maybe they also do it when I’m not there…

    However, my brother still insists on giving me the traditional pursed-mouth peck on the lips, (much to frog husband’s hilarity), and now it makes me really embarrassed and I always turn away at last minute so that he gets my cheek instead.

    I love giving the bise to friends and family now – it’s a very elegant way of greeting and can be as affectionate as you like. But I HATE kissing people I’ve never met before, or anyone in a work situation. I once worked in an office where EVERYONE went round kissing everyone else when they arrived in the morning. AWFUL. As an English eccentric I got away with a general wave to everyone when I arrived…

    Comment by Mancunian lass — December 14, 2004 @ 9:29 pm

  10. And there is also the question of what cheek to offer! In Paris and its suburbs, it is usually the right one, but in Province it can be the left one. Which cheek you offer when you make “la bise” gives you a good indication of where you are coming from!

    Comment by Estelle — December 14, 2004 @ 11:14 pm

  11. It’s not just the French! My in-laws (technically my brother’s in-laws … long woggy story) are Chilean and they kiss, generally, three times … but sometimes twice …. and occasionally not at all! Mind you, they’ve been in Oz for 28 years so I think they probably get confused which culture they’re living in too!!!! Oz is interesting, we have so many different cultures and travel so much, but also have the full on “australia” that so many tourists come to see, where a man to kiss another man on the cheek is to be a raging pansy, and women might give a polite peck on the cheek to someone they know very well …. poor tourists!

    Comment by Miss Lisa — December 14, 2004 @ 11:37 pm

  12. I’m so used to doing two here in Paris. Was just in Le Mans and completely had the awkward “ehhp! he’s going back for round two!” moment.

    Comment by Coquette — December 15, 2004 @ 1:05 am

  13. I am Portuguese but as I have lived away in anglo-countries for the last 8 years I completely lost the habit of hello/goodbye kissing. Actually it went quite fast, and whenever I go back I have to keep reminding myself to do it so as not to seem impolite. the rule was always maintained as two kiss, and some people who would go for one only would be sneered upon, and consideres arrogant/snobbish (for some unknown reason) My in-laws are Chilean and they kiss only once never twice (it took me a few turns to find that out). My cousin, freshly arrived from PT to England kissed my very English female friend when introduced to her puzzlement and his utter embarrasement after I explained the social rules of the land.

    Comment by Cal — December 15, 2004 @ 5:21 am

  14. In Poland they kiss too, though technically it’s only on special occasions. However, I live in the south, where the Goralski folk live, and they kiss every time they meet.

    The kissing itself is more standard, though. Three kisses, starting on the left cheek. At least that’s easy to remember.

    Comment by Gary — December 15, 2004 @ 6:12 am

  15. Hello Petite Anglaise

    I had a great fun reading your post ! I’m french, I live in Belgium, and work with a lot of english people. They’re wondering a lot about ” La bise” .

    Can I continue in french ? I don’t want to make a fool of myself with my “not so good” english ;)

    Alors, la bise est un mystère pour qui n’est pas français ;) Mes amies parisiennes font deux bises, mais pas directement sur la joue, par contre à Montpellier, on fait 4 bises en commençant par la joue gauche ! Et en Belgique, on en fait 2, les trois bises sont reservées aux anniversaires…

    Comment by Miss Cyalume — December 15, 2004 @ 10:08 am

  16. Here in Rennes, it is usually 2 bises with the right cheek offered first. But there is also a component of how well you know someone. Beware if you see your significant other giving/receiving just one bise from someone you don’t know..! I agree with Petite, our Childminder, as close as she may be, only ever got bises at Christmas while she was looking after the kids. Now she has “friend” rather than professional status, it’s bises ahoy.

    Another tricky one is how to deal with Anglo friends here. It took me about 3 years to begin exchanging bises with an Irish friend, despite both of us being fully at ease with other French people.

    I actually like les bises as a principle, along with the (sometimes buttock-clenchingly limp) handshakes between men. Don’t you love it when a mechanic or chef offers you an elbow or wrist to shake?! The best is when a mechanic meets a chef and the two gesticulate with various joints. Sorry, I digress…

    The worst experience I ever had of bise-fatigue was a New Year’s Eve party with over 150 people. Bises on arrival, bises at midnight and bises before leaving. As Eddie Izzard might say, “Covered in Bises…”

    Comment by Jim in Rennes — December 15, 2004 @ 10:15 am

  17. The kissing thing seems to have become a global phenomenon in the past decade or so – it’s not just sweeping the UK! Alas, even here in Iceland where the people are supposed to be trés cold, cheeks are being abundantly kissed. And oh, how I can relate to that embarrassed direction-change mid-air! :neutral:

    Comment by Alda — December 15, 2004 @ 11:46 am

  18. I can’t tell you the number of French women that I have offended by accidentally extending my arm to shake their hand, when I should have been leaning in for the “french kiss.”

    I experienced a new one for me this past weekend. I was at a holiday party attended mostly by very close friends. It was at my partner’s cousins house and it was all of the cousin’s friends from when they were extremely young. When we were leaving, I thought I was only expected to perform “la bise” with the women, but then I realized that the men were doing it, as well. Just when I thought I was getting the hang of it.

    Comment by Jason Stone — December 15, 2004 @ 11:59 am

  19. went on a trip once when i was a kid to our twinned village just outside paris and remember having to allow an extra 15 mins for the coach to leave so that the 50 of us could get the requisite 4 kisses in with everyone before we went.

    there was however a knack to this, as i saved up the pretty french girl i fancied most until last, kissing around the rest of the group trying to catch her eye, building up the tension towards the farewell, so that i could linger meaningfully across those 4 cheeks…

    this all meant a great deal in my english adolescent brain, but needless to say, i’m sure she didn’t notice in the last slightest…

    Comment by tom hagen — December 15, 2004 @ 12:46 pm

  20. Hi Petite
    The eternal dilemna of the bise… We have been known to miss a ferry crossing back to the UK because of underestimating the time required to leave a family party in France !
    Personally, from schooldays I got fed up with all this bise business and was well relieved that this wasn’t the done thing in the UK when I moved there. What better way to share cold viruses ? Now that I am back in France I have to face the problem again and I have decided that I am only kissing relatives and close friends. Colleagues and strangers ? No way ! A firm handshake and a smile will do just as well and if you initiate it there won’t be any embarrassing moments. As for the regionality of the number of bises I think this is b******* there is no rule at all everyone makes it up !

    Comment by Froog — December 15, 2004 @ 1:47 pm

  21. Hi,

    In music I heard many times : “A wrong note played with timidity is a wrong note. A wrong note played with force is an interpretation”.

    Even Frenchies don’t know how many they have to do. So do it and the person will be ok.

    Comment by VilCoyot — December 15, 2004 @ 3:32 pm

  22. I hate doing the bise too. Far too close for comfort.

    What I really want to know is – who was the object of your affections who became a TV star? Name please!!

    Comment by kjr — December 15, 2004 @ 3:35 pm

  23. ahem

    Hunter from the Gladiators.

    he was nice when he was dark haired and slim, before the steroids and the bad bleach job.

    honest.

    Comment by petite — December 15, 2004 @ 4:01 pm

  24. This bloke???

    Comment by Chninkel — December 15, 2004 @ 5:09 pm

  25. Thank-you! Wow – there’s a name from the past. Can just about picture him. Coming soon to ‘I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! Season 7′ no doubt…

    Comment by kjr — December 15, 2004 @ 5:15 pm

  26. In Lyon, it was 2 from the Lyonnais, but I knew people from other parts of France who would do either 3 or 4…

    It never really bothered me, I’d just take the lead from the French person. At least it’s reasonably consistent with your French friends – i.e. you know that you will always do the “bise”. With my English friends, I don’t know what I’m doing. Some of my friends kiss me, others don’t. Even really close ones…

    Comment by witho — December 15, 2004 @ 5:19 pm

  27. I live with a Spanish girl and when her parents came to visit for the first time, her father just stood there expectantly. It took me over a minute to realise that i was expected to kiss him! Needless to say, it was embarassing for all of us!

    I got more used to the kissing thing when i was dating a half Algerian half French man, but i still got a bit jealous when he exchanged kisses with his female friends!

    Comment by Nancy — December 15, 2004 @ 7:42 pm

  28. chninkel

    if the scanner was still hooked up to the computer and not languishing under the bed, I would have scanned our school photo circa 1981 showing ‘Hunter’ and a bespectacled and moody petite anglaise aged 9.

    Start begging. Maybe I should add a paypal button and post the picture once a suitable bribe had been paid?

    Comment by petite — December 15, 2004 @ 8:30 pm

  29. My favorite thing is when someone I just met continues on to 3rd and 4th kisses, and then they say “It’s four kisses here in France!” I want to say “If you’re not related to me, it’s no kisses back in the states!”

    Comment by ViVi — December 15, 2004 @ 9:01 pm

  30. Cheekshake
    Lèvres rougesToday, la petite Anglaise, one of the weblogs I found out about because it was nominated as best expat blog for the 1st afoe European blog awards, deals with the complexities of interpersonal courtesy in France, partcularly la bise….

    Trackback by A Fistful of Euros — December 15, 2004 @ 9:22 pm

  31. La Bise (so much more elegant in french, don’t you think?) Has even become de rigeur in Australian culture… even here on the Norther Beaches where surf rules … Too bizarre..

    After some embarassing false starts I now tend to hold back and let the other person make the move… that way we don’t end up colliding… Of course, to do so probably has all sorts of bad mannerly connotations but I have neither the black eyes andnor the embarassed awkward greeting with him who I got too close for comfort with by mistake …

    Comment by deeleea — December 15, 2004 @ 9:40 pm

  32. Hello, petite anglaise,
    I lived in Paris in the seventies and eighties
    and have been, since then, reduced to the German provinces. I enjoy your blog immensely.

    To add to the general confusion: I remember a poshy and slighty snobbish (male) friend telling me that more than 2 bises were characteristic of “province” or, worse, “paisants” and that, generally speaking, the less bises, the higher on the social ladder. He of course just kissed ONE cheek once, which has its own charm.

    Looking forward to more comments on France and the French!

    Comment by Marquise des Anges — December 15, 2004 @ 10:18 pm

  33. Coming via A Fistful of Euros…

    I must say, I now feel lucky I’m blind.:mrgreen:

    Comment by Penta — December 16, 2004 @ 12:42 am

  34. In the 18 months since I started dating my Monsieur Grenouille, over here in San Francisco, I have amused myself by watching all of my international friends, both male and female, European and American get very used to and at ease with greeting us both with a couple of little bisous each.

    Comment by Sam — December 16, 2004 @ 1:25 am

  35. When I went on sabbatical to Aix-en-Provence, my daughter went to lycee. The kissing thing was a little different than what she was used to. With 35 kids in a class, it was a major part of the day. We worked out some of the math involved in kissing here:

    http://harbaugh.uoregon.edu/Papers/Kissing.pdf

    Comment by Bill — December 17, 2004 @ 5:05 pm

  36. Les bises /(French) kissing
    I

    thoroughly enjoyed this post by Céline Graciet, a French born translator who lives in England. It reminded me so much of episodes when I was in the UK or in the States and had trouble deciding whether I should shake hands with people, give a h…

    Trackback by Blogging in Paris — December 26, 2004 @ 10:20 am


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