A simple thing like saying hello and goodbye can be a daunting experience when you are a stranger in a strange land. In France, greeting rituals are complicated since they are both verbal and non-verbal and might include kissing (if you’re lucky). It’s interesting that the French have an expression “simple comme bonjour”, meaning that something is easy, obvious, clear. But when it comes to kissing hello, nothing is clear or obvious. Let’s look at some kissing guidelines so you know what you have to do the next time you come to France.
First of all, spoken greetings are important in France. You will notice that when you walk into a bakery or a café or any kind of store. Everyone says the proverbial “bonjour” before anything else happens. Even bus drivers say hello and goodbye to their passengers. They don’t kiss them, though. That’s reserved for family and friends.
The family part is easy to figure out. I have a French family and when I met them all more than twenty years ago, I just followed their lead. Their kissing system is cheek-to-cheek; right side first and stop at two. You kiss when you say hello and you kiss when you say goodbye and you should be very careful not to forget anyone since that can be seen as a real “faux pas”. Sometimes, at a big family dinner, saying goodbye to all the guests can take a while, so give yourself some extra kissing time if you have a train to catch.
Now, in the workplace, things are clear in the beginning, but they start to get a bit more complicated when your co-worker becomes your friend. First off, it’s a handshake and then a verbal “bonjour” and “au revoir” every working day. Some colleagues “make the rounds” greeting everyone on their floor before they settle down to work. There is something very endearing about the way the French see greetings as a duty, a sign of respect. They need to acknowledge your presence in a polite way. That part is very clear.
The gray area is the passage from handshake to kiss, and how many kisses to give when you get to that stage. Tradition varies, depending on where you come from in France. The people I have met from the Normandy area and northern France tend to plant four kisses on the cheek. The ones I have met from Brittany stop at three. That’s fine if you know it ahead of time. But it can be pretty awkward if you are going for two kisses and move your head away while the kisser keeps going. It is also awkward if you start on the left and they start on the right. To avoid head-bumping and lip brushing, I suggest starting on the right. It’s easy to remember since it’s the same side you would use for a handshake and it works, nine times out of ten.
But when, exactly when, do you kiss? That’s a hard one to answer. The younger generation tends to kiss a new acquaintance right off the bat. That is not true for everyone. You might be invited to someone’s house and shake hands when you say hello but kiss when you say goodbye since you have gotten to know the person over the course of a meal and a couple of bottles of wine. Your best bet would be to do what they do.
The only excuse for not kissing hello to a friend is related to health. You can excuse yourself from that social gesture if you have a cold or feel one coming on. A few years ago, when the swine flu broke out, I did notice some air kissing in France – where people would pretend to kiss by smacking their lips but there is no bodily contact that could spread germs. That did not last too long (thank goodness).
In France, men kiss men, women kiss women, men kiss women, the young kiss the old and vice versa but everyone who uses kissing in their greeting does so on the cheek. A kiss on the lips, even a brief one, is a sign of romantic love, intimacy.
People who witness a kissing greeting on the lips of a couple can immediately see that they are a couple. Greeting hugs are rare in France – I have actually only seen them at funerals and weddings. The traditional social gesture is a kissing, with facial contact only.
France was one of the first countries to allow public displays of affection. That is a surprise to no one. Paris, the capital city of romance, is full of park benches with people showing off their French kissing skills. No one yells at them to “Get a room!” – lovers are just part of the scenery here along with the Arc of Triumph and the Eiffel Tower.
Eh voila! There you have the basic guidelines for meeting and greeting the French. So, what’s the next step? Come on over and enjoy the wonderful social ritual of kissing hello and goodbye. We all know the French love to demonstrate.