(I originally wrote this post for another forum in response to a neat article called Kissing business acquaintances -- X, XXX or XXXXX?, but I figured it might be interesting for readers here. See my article about basic etiquette in Paris for more.)
I have a lot of thoughts about this! Mostly for non-business situations, as my whole life in France has been mostly very informal; I worked at home and never held an office job, but I'd visit different offices, meet with the occasional client, and hang out with various professional types. In my experience colleagues would only do the two kisses with people they worked with a long time and were very friendly with. (This is called "la bise," by the way. "Faire la bise" is to greet one another with these kisses on the cheek.) For most professional situations, it's a handshake. Anyway, the bise is fascinating, especially in non-work situtations...
So, yup, in Paris, it's always always two kisses. You always go to your left first. (Nervous Americans ask me about that all the time; which way do I go??) I've seen young women from the suburbs greet each other with four kisses occasionally in Paris; you know they're not from Paris 'cause they're doing more than two kisses. I went to a barbecue one time way way out in the suburbs and all the women were doing four kisses and it was exhausting; it took forever for my group to say our goodbyes at the end and get out of there.
To me what's more interesting is: to WHOM should one administer these kisses? In what situations? And (perhaps most interestingly) how close should the kisses actaully be to the person's cheek? I'm just going to talk about Paris 'cause that's the place I spent the most time...
Work situation, meeting someone for the first time, always a handshake. This goes for two men, two women, or a woman and a man. In formal situations, let's say a woman talking to her landlord, or a lawyer meeting with a longtime client, always a handshake. Outside of the work and formal situations, things get much more complicated...
Two women who are friends will always greet with two kisses. Two women who have met before in a friendly situation but are merely acquaintances will also do the bise. Two women who are meeting for the first time but are have a mutual friend will also do la bise. Same for other random situations like women who have met online but are meeting in real life for the first time. Same for women meeting for the first time ever at a party; it's implied that they have a mutual friend 'cause they're at the same party.
These rules are identical for a man and a women. Friends will do the bise. Friends of friends will do the bise. In friendly situations, la bise.
For two men it's trickier. (I almosted added "straight" men but I'm not totally sure; I think these rules are actually pretty much the same for gay and straight men.) Two men meeting for the first time will always shake hands. Two men who have been friends for a long time may shake hands forever. But some men who are close friends will move on to the bise. This happened with me and my closest male French friends within a week or two. But I have many male acquaintances in France with whom I have always shaken hands, and there's an unspoken agreement that we always will.
So it feels strange and fascinating (for me, a foreigner) to show up at a party with a mix of men and women whom I know and don't know. I go around and say hi to everyone; la bise with each woman, both the ones and I know and the ones I don't know, although with the ones I don't know we're saying our names into each other's ears as we do the first kiss; handshakes with all the men I don't know, la bise with my closest and least formal male friends, and handshakes with my other male friends. It requires a lot of concentration (again, for this foreigner) to deftly move through the room and immediately, smoothly, confidently take the correct action with each person.
If you're a straight guy and you go for the bise with a straight guy you don't know, he'll probably let you but it'll be very funny and awkward. Go for a handshake with a woman you've met before and she'll absolutely be offended. (I've had more than one French guy tell me this is interpreted specifically to mean the man thinks the woman is ugly.) Do the bise with all the ladies at the party you've never met before, and then one of them is a little older and turns out to be the host's mom and you just went for the bise with her rather than a handshake and everyone thinks it's hilarious/adorable! God damn it, it's complicated sometimes. But get to be friendly with that woman this time and the next time you see her OF COURSE you should do the bise. This is all effortless and natural for people born there, of course. They don't see it as complicated or having a lot of rules. It just makes sense to them.
As you might imagine, as a foreigner I'm quickly forgiven for getting these things wrong or doing them awkwardly. You will be too.
Now, here's a fascinating part: What kind of kiss are we talking about here? How close? Touching or not? Where exactly? And for how long? Holy shit, this can get complicated.
I'll start with the least intimate situation: my straight male friends, and women I barely know. The cheeks might actually not touch at all, and the lips definitely don't touch the cheek; you just put your cheeks close together and kiss the air, very quickly and silently, usually while continuing smalltalk at the same time (what's up? you good? it's been ages) to make it less weird or intimate.
With my closest male friends, including my girlfriend's father who adores me, it's a much more affectionate interaction. The cheeks touch but the kiss still hits the air. A hand may go on the person's side or arm. It's a quick motion, and then we quickly separate and get back into our own space.
That's my CLOSE male friends. With my not-very-close female friends, same level. Cheeks touch, but lips don't touch the cheek. Quick, in and out.
Close female friends, the lips may or may not touch the cheek. Two quick, light kisses right in the middle of the cheek, with the side of the lips. Still, the contact is very light and very brief.
Now, with a romantic interest, things get really interesting. A lot of communication can happen in those two tiny kisses. You've got all kinds of options like letting your lips linger on the cheek for a few microseconds longer, pulling the person close (this is highly risky if you're not sure they like you! More on that later!), or even landing the kisses very close to the person's mouth rather than way off in the safe territory of the cheeks. (Now, of course, couples don't do the bise with each other, so these risky, more-intimate versions of the bise are for people who are maybe starting to date or flirting real hard.) People who absolutely adore each other may hold each other's upper arms with both hands as they do this and then after the kiss remain standing close to each other holding the arms and speaking to each other with their faces very close together. This move freaks me the hell out; my girlfriend's mom always does it to me, and I'm a dude who doesn't even really like to hug people. Imagine, she's got her hands clasping your upper arms so you naturally have to do the same thing, and after the kiss you're stuck standing there locked together talking with your faces just inches apart, just chatting about whatever, it's great to see you, etc. It's such a warm, friendly gesture but it freaks me out 'cause I'm not super affectionate with friends/family normally.
Oh jeez I'm writing way too much but I feel like I barely scratched the surface of all this. Another funny way to look at it is from the French perspective and how they feel about the way Americans hug each other. The French find this incredibly intimate and it freaks them the hell out! So, like I've explained to French people, it used to make me uncomfortable (but in a good way!) to have to do the bise with every beautiful woman I met in Paris. In my American context, my face would only ever be that close to a woman's in a very intimate/romantic situation back home, so for me to have to do that just to be polite with someone I'm meeting used to feel very very strange. (I'm totally used to it now.) It would totally trigger a weird nervous romance feeling in me to just do the polite bise with a pretty lady I was meeting at a party; our faces touched! She's so soft and smells so good! Gah! I'm in love! Ha. So, consider how the hug works for Americans; it's just a hug, and you can hug just about anybody. For French people, to have one's body pressed against someone and your arms around them is extremely intimate/romantic, so they're horrified by the idea of having to hug casual acquaintances in America. I remember the first time I brought my girlfriend to America and she was gonna meet my mom, I warned her, look, I know you're not used to hugging people, but my mom (who's super friendly and was dying to meet her) is going to hug you immediately and squeeze you and hold onto you for a second, and you have to let her, and you have to not freeze up or pull away because she'll notice and it might offend her. My girlfriend was absolutely terrified. The first things she said was, "She's-- she's going to press up against my boobs?" And I said yes, that's how it works, sorry. You have to let her. Same with all my friends (especially women) who had heard about her for months and were dying to meet her. But anyway, just like me with getting used to the bise, she got over it quickly when we moved to America and now she hugs people, no problem. And I've had to see her give other French people the same education, like when she was preparing to bring her parents to the US to hang out with my family and explained, to their horror, that they would have to hug my sister and mom. They are super warm, friendly people and they got on board with it and were quickly fine with it, but they were really nervous about it the first time. Now her dad makes a big show out of hugging me ("à l'américain," in the American fashion) when we see each other. Interestingly, my girlfriend's younger sister (25-ish?) is obsessed with American pop culture and she LOVES hugging Americans (once she got used to it) because it's how she sees Americans interact in movies.
Wait, what was the question?
(See my article about basic etiquette in Paris for more.)
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