Promoting French and American friendship and understanding…
Although the country of the “French Kiss” might have a reputation as a land where daily communication includes lots of gestures involving touching or kissing, it may be surprising to learn that in most situations actual physical contact only occurs when greeting or saying goodbye.
In general, when meeting people in France, a mixture of handshakes and informal kisses are used depending on the context. It is very important to use the correct protocol, because if you try kissing your boss’ cheeks on the first day of work it can get you into a lot of trouble! And if you forget to shake someone’s hand, it can be easily taken as a sign of anger or disrespect.
Les Filles - “The Air Kiss”
For those of you living under a rock, a “French Kiss” involves tongue touching and should probably only be used between lovers. This is very different from what I call the regular French “air kiss” that is used when greeting a woman where you sort of touch each other’s cheeks briefly on each side of the face and smack your lips in thin air at the same time. In general, it’s just a “smacking” sound and not a real kiss. However, just like the kind of wet kisses you might get from your great aunt Edna, there can be variations to the “air kiss” where it is sometimes transformed into a slightly moist cheek kiss. Another variation is also inclining your head upwards, as if you are looking at the ceiling, and kissing sort of up into the air. This “high-air kiss” seems to be mostly confined to high society gatherings, a bit like lifting up your little finger when drinking tea.
In France, greeting women using “air kisses” is fairly common practice when in an informal setting (e.g., a café with friends, a dinner, a party, etc.) and when they are around the same age as you (or younger). However, in a more formal environment, a handshake should always be used during the first encounter. If the woman is your manager in a business environment, you should continue only handshaking until she specifically says otherwise.
Although the standard acceptable number of “air kisses” used in France is two (one on each cheek), this can also vary depending on the area of the country. Several departments insist on using three and there are many areas around Paris where four is the usual number (see my interactive map link at the end of the article). Basically, if you don’t know, start with two, but if the person’s body language insists (leaning or alternating cheeks), just go with the flow and add a third or even a fourth, after which you can definitely stop. If you get to five, then the French are just toying with your mind…
Les Garçons - “The Handshake”
Greetings between two men are simpler - just like in most parts of the world you simply shake hands.1 However, in comparison to the US where handshakes occur only the first time you meet someone and basically never again, in the French workplace the whole hand shaking routine is practiced EVERY MORNING. Extremely French co-workers can sometimes take it as a personal affront if you are concentrated on something else and inadvertently neglect your daily hand shaking or “air kissing” duty!
Bonjour and Bonjour Again
Concerning use of the word “bonjour”, it should ONLY be said once per day per person, and ONLY the first time you see them. Unlike in the US, where you can sometimes say “hi” to a co-worker 20 times a day if you keep running into them, in France if you encounter a colleague in the hallway that you have already said “bonjour” to, DO NOT say “bonjour” again! You are guaranteed to get a strange look indicating “you moron, don’t you remember you already said bonjour to me today? Weren’t you paying any attention or do you care about me at all?”. Instead, if you really need to fill the silence, then just say the word “re-bonjour”, which translates to “hey, I am aware we already saw each other today, but I’m not sure what else to say to you, so I’ll just say hello again”.
The Morning Greeting Merry Go Round
This daily routine of shaking hands and exchanging “air kisses” with every co-worker you have ever randomly bumped into at the coffee machine can be one of the more harrowing rituals of working in France. You must always be sure to distinguish between regular co-workers (or peers) and higher management whom you would only give a handshake to, and, of course, you should never risk giving an “air kiss” to an upper level woman manager, unless her body language indicates this is what is required. At times this whirlwind of kissing, handshaking, understanding of organizational hierarchy (to determine if an informal or formal greeting is required) and remembering whether or not you already greeted a person earlier in the day can be quite stressful, especially for those of us lacking facial recognition skills…
The worst part about all of the hand shaking and kissing is probably personal hygiene. If you have just washed your hands after greeting all your co-workers and then another one drops by your desk, this newcomer is required to shake hands with everyone in your office, including yourself, even if you have never said more than one word to the person in your life. And then your hands are once again contaminated with whatever he happened to be touching just before the handshake (and we all know the bathroom requirements of drinking coffee in the morning)…
Fortunately, in compensation for all of the sweaty palms, weak handshakes and wet fingers encountered daily, the morning routine also includes giving “air kisses” to generally attractive French women. And thankfully, when you leave the office at night, saying a simple “bonne soirée” or “à demain” is all that is required!
The Party’s Over
Outside of the office, there are also other rules to be taken into consideration, especially at social events. Perhaps one of the reasons that French dinners or small parties can sometimes go into the late hours of the night is that the first person to leave has to inevitably disrupt the entire event because they are required, by politeness, to either shake the hands or give “air kisses” to every single person who is present. It’s kind of like a strange staring contest to see who is going to be the first loser to give in to fatigue, disrupt the merriment and go home to bed. Occasionally, if it’s a bigger party with lots of music or noise, you can sometimes slip out the back door by discreetly just saying goodbye to the hosts.
Finally, concerning the older members of the French population, as a sign of respect, NEVER do “air kisses”. Always shake hands only, unless the person is an older relative or close friend that you know quite well.
No Hugs Allowed
As a last word of advice to the average hug-obsessed American, THE FRENCH DON’T DO HUGS! Although handshakes and kisses are acceptable, for all their talk about being such a touchy-feely culture, hugs clearly violate too much personal space for most of the French and should only be attempted during parties where people have had ample amounts to drink. Hugging an unsuspecting French person is a very strange experience indeed, kind of like holding a heavy coat where the sleeves don’t quite know how to respond.
Greeting and leaving protocols in France can be very complicated, but if you have good facial recognition skills and are not afraid to stick out your hand or lean towards the occasional cheek, you should be able to manage. Of course, always remember that if you mess up, acting like a dumb foreigner can come in very handy during any awkward situation, and the occasional badly placed “bise” can sometimes be a great way to break the ice.
And perhaps with a bit of luck, the French kissing may also come earlier than you expected…
Extract from Friends, the one with all the Cheesecakes (unfortunately, I couldn’t find a direct link, but Friends fans will know this scene):
[Scene: Cousin Frannie’s Wedding Reception, Monica and Ross are sitting at the table, alone as a woman approaches.]
The Woman: Ross, sweetheart!
Ross: Oh, hey Aunt Millie.
Aunt Millie: Isn’t it a beautiful wedding?!
Ross: Yes, yes it is. It’s uh… (Aunt Millie uses this opportunity to grab Ross and kiss him on the lips. After she leaves Ross quickly wipes his mouth with a napkin.) Every time on the lips! Why?! Why on lips?!
From wikiHow for any kiss-challenged readers:
Caméra Café - M6 TV comedy that films 3 minute skits of events in front of a French coffee machine. With 700 episodes, this series may help with understanding the morning café ritual in the workplace…
Combien de Bises? - this is an interactive map showing the average number of “bises” per department. There really is no end to ideas for websites on the Internet…
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