Kissing in France. It’s an art. Also a joy, a nightmare, and an everyday part of life. Don’t reverse it and make ‘French’ the adjective to the active noun ‘kiss’, that would be missing the point entirely. I’m talking about les bisous, the everyday cheek-to-cheek and make a kissy sound manner of greeting one another.
In France, women greet women with les bisous (hereafter referred to by the short-hand ‘biz’). Men greet women with biz. And men sometimes greet men with biz. Usually, you go from one cheek to the other making two kisses for a single greeting. But sometimes, depending on the region and the friendship, it could be three or even four (or more?). Clear as mud? What’s interesting to me is that the whole idea of kissing each others’ cheeks is physically impossible. Grab whoever’s sitting next to you right now and see if you can successfully simultaneously plant a kiss on the cheek. Not happening, at least not without an uncalled for amount of mashed skin.
When I first arrived in France, I always struggled with the specifics of les biz. If I’m sitting down, do I need to stand up to biz? Where do I position my body? Do I step into the biz or lean into it? What do I do with my hands? Limp to the sides? That seems impersonal. Hands on their shoulders? Too dominant. Grab forearms? Maybe natural for women, but not me. Which side do I go to first? Eventually, this all worked itself out as I became accustomed to life here.
Today I had on of those “Ah! That explains it!!” moments. My friend Tiffany told me that people in Paris biz starting on the opposite side than people in Marseille. You see, I lived in Paris for a year then moved to Marseille. I remember one of my first days down here, I visited a good friend that I hadn’t seen in many months. I walked up to him smiling and knew there’d be a “so good to see you” biz involved. Problem though... I went left and he went right, which placed us nose to nose puckering up. Then he went left and I went right, still puckering, still directly face-to-face. There was a moment of awkward tension and I held my ground as he pulled back to the right to make it happen. Then we had a good laugh. And then in the weeks following that happened again, and again. I’d never thought about which side to go for, it had always been learned muscle memory. But a change of regions totally toyed with that muscle memory and left me missing cheeks entirely.
With that story, I present to you 11 Awkward Bisous
1. The Bearded Biz - I always feel bad when it comes time to greet someone and I haven’t shaved in a couple days. I can’t help but shudder at the poor soul’s fate of having to brush up against my stubble and how that must feel: unwanted, uninvited, uncomfortable. Thus I tense up and rush the biz.
2. The How Many? Biz - You are usually safe to go with two. But in a new region you can’t be sure. And sometimes a good friend might be ready to move the relationship up the the 3 or 4 level. If you pull back after 2 and they’re not done, discomfiture will follow.
3. The Talk in Between Biz - Sometimes you are greeted with a word or a question and then a lean in for the kiss. But you haven’t responded yet! Yet you feel obliged to respond, it would be rude to put it off, right? Thus it goes like this: *kiss* “I’m fine, thanks” *kiss*, or “Hi I’m Élodie,” *kiss* “Michael” *kiss*. Inevitably the words come out as your mouths are inches apart. And then you wonder how long it’s been since you brushed your teeth.
4. The Handshake Biz - Not sure whether to shake or biz, you thrust out your hand as the other person leans in. Not unlike the handshake/hug dilemma in the US, but a step up on the embarrassing meter thanks to the kiss involved.
5. The Beware the Glasses Biz - When the other person’s wearing glasses, a tingling of terror shoots up my spine. This all stems back to an incident in Paris where I went in for a biz and knocked a girl’s glasses clear off her face.
6. The Do I Know You? Biz - Not unlike the handshake biz, the ‘Do I Know You?’ Biz takes the flip side error into play. There have been times when I’ve made the move and leaned in for the kiss, only to have the other party give me a look of “I don’t have any idea who you are nor why you’re kissing my cheeks.” After which I drop my head, tuck my tail, and sulk away to hide in a corner. Or pretend I’m important and hip.
7. The Nose Collision Biz - When moving from one side of the next, be sure to pull back enough without exaggerating. Eskimo kisses may be cute in Alaska; here they’re gauchely.
8. The Right, Left, or Oh No, Not the Middle! Biz - Covered in my story above, if you’ve recently moved or are unsure of which side... be patient and let the other person make the first move!
9. The Sweaty Biz - I’m self-conscious enough to avoid the situation entirely or lie about being sick if I just finished some wind-sprints have a face full of sweat. But not all have the same inclination. I have a good friend who’s a pastor, and approaching him after a hearty sermon in the lights will leave me pulling away with a glistening layer of second-hand sweat.
10. The Interrupt the Conversation Biz - Greetings are extremely important in France. If you walk into a social event, it is absolutely necessary to greet individually everyone involved. Usually this is done immediately on entering. But what if you are engrossed in conversation and someone approaches for a greeting biz? Or vice-versa, you enter and persons #4 and #5 are excitedly discussing the state of elections in the latest hard-fought PTA race? The always uncomfortable Interrupt the Conversation Biz ensues.
11. The Can’t Turn Back Now Biz - This one fascinates me, and I love watching them happen. Imagine walking into a crowded bar or restaurant. You’re joining a table of colleagues, but across the establishment you see a friend. Eye contact is made and movement begins to come together for the greeting. But obstacles abound... chairs are back-to-back and people have to scoot in, a plant in the way must be maneuvered around, and quickly the prospect of actually coming face-to-face seems hopeless. But you’ve begun, you’re into the journey, and you simply can’t turn back now!
Optional 12th (for the guys): The You’re Another Dude, So... Biz - As mentioned earlier, man-to-man kissing can be ambiguous. That ambiguity can lead to the Handshake Biz, the Do I Know You That Well? Biz, and the frightening Double Bearded Biz. In a similar category would be the situation of approaching another American in the presence of French. Do you kiss the American too? Will they be ready for it?
With this list you should be prepared to step right into socially awkward situations in France with as much clumsiness as this American who’s lived here for a couple years.