You are an expat from a country where affection is shown by tight-lipped smiles, drunken hugs (“You’re my best pal!) and a kiss to your parents at Christmas. In other words, you are normal. But now you live in France and you have to kiss people repeatedly, all day, every day. This kissing stuff is called la bise and this is your life now.
The rules for kissing when greeting are not so difficult, even for an English-speaking expat for whom the whole business is as natural as samba or surfing. (Believe me, I have tried all three.) They are thus: as a woman you kiss family, friends, friends-of-friends to whom you are introduced in a social situation and – if you’re close – colleagues. That may seem like a long list but there are a whole bunch of people you don’t kiss, including your boss, waiters, fellow commuters, your gynaecologist – the list goes on and on. So the whole who-to-kiss thing is pretty simple, right?
Simplish. Because there are some grey-area situations where the potential for social awkwardness is rife.
Situation 1: A bonjour-only becomes kissable
I am in possession of that most rare of jewels: a friendly Frenchman. Which is lovely, really. The problem is that he has conversations with our neighbours. Now I lived in London for many years successfully not getting to know any of my neighbours, apart from that one time we were mass burgled and forced to speak to one another (which was possibly the worst bit about the whole business). In France, though, my partner has become so friendly with some of these neighbours that they get their bise on when they meet in the building’s communal areas.
Which means that a person with whom I had hitherto been on bonjour-only terms has, by association, been upgraded to a kisser. It’s like my partner is a zombie who has infected previously healthy people and now there are all these zombies in my building, making trips in and out of the building fraught with anxiety.
So now when we meet and the two French people faire la bise, what is the third person – a socially inept expat – doing? I’ll tell you. Standing back stiffly while overcompensating with the friendliness of my “BONJOUR!” Hiding in the bushes rather than enter the building at the same time as them; not leaving home; planning on buying another apartment somewhere uninfected… until the Friendly Frenchman strikes again.
Situation 2: Who are you, exactly?
We live in a town where my partner grew up and often bump into people he knew from back in the day. Sometimes these will be people I have met before (therefore are bisable) but sometimes they are complete strangers to me. The problem is I often don’t know which category they are in. (Especially when they’re old people; old people all look the same to me.) The question is therefore: do I have to kiss you, oh wrinkly stranger?
The market is the absolute worst for this scenario. Picture this: we are queueing at the butcher’s stall; a man in his sixties passes, recognises my partner and they shake hands. Now here’s the difficulty: I can’t simply follow my partner’s lead and shake hands. Because I am a woman and thus condemned to kissing n’importe qui.
A split second passes. Stranger looks at me expectantly – very possibly he’s wondering who the hell I am – but I’m frozen. Is this such-n-such’s dad, or the old teacher, or the neighbour that lived next door all those years? The moment passes, I have not bised. Now I’m left thinking I’ve possibly made a faux pas.
I think: “If he knows I’m a foreigner, he will realise my lack of bising is down to confusion, not rudeness.” Rudeness is the worst thing in the world; I can’t be thought of as rude. I decide that the only way to convey this clearly is by speaking English loudly. But to whom? I see my two lovely children. “Leave your sister alone!” I shout at the elder, pleased with myself. The innocent child looks up at me, hurt and betrayed. I smile at the mysterious man, mission accomplished. I am not rude, only foreign.
Situation 3: Other expats
In my experience groups of expats don’t do la bise when they meet. We say hello and immediately talk about the weather, trains and which is the latest Marks and Spencer’s to have opened up. Where the situation gets complicated is when a French person is introduced into the mix.
Imagine this. British Liz is waiting for her friends (British Kate and French Aurélie). Liz, being a savvy expat, knows she must faire la bise with Aurélie, and does so, perhaps privately congratulating herself on how continental she’s become. (Oh, if my friends could see me now!) Now Liz is faced with Kate and realises with horror that they must kiss now too. Why? Because it would be pretty weird to only kiss one person and leave out the other.
Have you ever had two cats that hated each other and tried to make them cuddle? I did that regularly as a child. (I know.) It’s the image that comes to mind when two expats have to do the bise. They’re unwilling and it’s uncomfortable but a force greater than them is propelling them. They may laugh and acknowledge the strangeness lightly but it’s there all right.
And the next time Liz and Kate meet, without Aurélie? They’ve pretty much got to kiss forever now that a precendent has been set.
Situation 4: Non-French visitors
Expats, whatever else our failings, at least have a certain level of experience with la bise. This cannot be said for all foreigners visiting France, as I found to my dismay one time.
It was a French friend’s birthday and it was being celebrated in a restaurant. As is often the case with this pretty and popular lady, there were plenty of people there we didn’t know. As Paul Taylor points out in his brilliant video, this means you have to kiss everyone while introducing yourself at the beginning of the night. While not exactly looking forward to this part of the evening, I was relaxed enough about the whole drill, having lived in France for several years by this point.
All was going well until I came to a friend-of-a-friend, completely unknown to me. My partner went first, shook hands/said names and moved on. I blithely followed and did la bise with him. It was like kissing a gravestone. This was a face that did not want to be kissed. I felt like some sort of pervert. Or like someone who would force two angry cats to cuddle (I have guilt issues over the cat thing.)
I found out later he was from Germany, a non kissy-kissy country. Later I saw him shaking hands with some French girls. “Pff, he’s rubbish at la bise,” I thought smugly. “I’m much better than him.”
Situation 5: Your partner’s ex-father-in-law
Yeah, he didn’t want to kiss me. I can still picture the horror in his eyes just as I was going in. Euch.
Think you’re an expert in la bise? Find out with this fiendlishly tricky kissin’ quiz. 100% awkwardness guaranteed.