Cheekshake

Today, la petite Anglaise, one of the weblogs I found out about because it was nominated as best expat blog for the 1st afoe European blog awards, deals with the complexities of interpersonal courtesy in France, partcularly la bise.

La bise is second nature to the French. For a foreigner like myself it is a minefield. First of all, there is the matter of how many kisses you are supposed to bestow. In Paris the norm seems to be two. In certain Parisian suburbs however you are expected to give four (which must be time consuming when you have to take your leave of a party of ten people). In some regions three is the customary number. Many a time I have proffered my cheeks twice, only to find that I was expected to go two full rounds.


To be sure, it can be as tricky as finding the right words on her doorstep after a date. I vividly remember cultural immersion classes at my French business school in which a very understanding French lady tried to explain to assumed rude and insensitive foreign peasants how to behave a little more like real Frenchmen – not least by choosing the (most) respectful closing formula for a letter out of at least a couple of dozen whose differences are clearly lost in translation, and by applying the appropriate amount of cheekshaking to complement the use of hands when meeting someone.

On the other hand, most French people I met did not really care about foreigners cultural clumsiness, as long as the latter tried. Being careful certainly helps to achieve that objective. But, as far as I can tell, even in France, courtesy rituals aren’t what used to be – and, allegedly, still are in other cultures. Argentinian fellow students explained in the seminar mentioned above that, in their country, sometimes, when entering, or leaving, a party, it would be customary to exchange four kisses with everyone attending. And they did not say anything about an attendance-based limit to this practice.

Maybe the more relaxed French attitude with respect to the art of hello-kissing has helped the practice’s adoption in other countries. La petite Anglaise mentions her experiences with the adoption of cheek-kissing in the UK, and, also in Germany, albeit generally still limited to an inter-sex basis, kissing hello and goodbye has recently become more and more common. I wonder if there are similar trends in other previously tight-up handshake-countries…

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About Tobias Schwarz

German, turned 30 a while ago, balding slowly, hopefully with grace. A carnival junkie, who, after studies in business and politics in Mannheim, Paris, and London, is currently living in his hometown of Mainz, Germany, again. Became New Labourite during a research job at the House of Commons, but difficult to place in German party-political terms. Liberal in the true sense of the term.

His political writing is mostly on A Fistful of Euros and on facebook these days. Occasional Twitter user and songwriter. His personal blog is almost a diary. Even more links at about.me.

3 thoughts on “Cheekshake

  1. Dutch people always give three, so there is not much refinement there. Hip young men do kiss other hip young men though.
    Kissing habits in Belgium seem to depend on the region, and/or the company. Men in Brussels and Wallonia are allowed to kiss. That is, if I observed correctly, as I do find choosing the right number extremely difficult in multi-EU-cultural Brussels. You never know if it should be 0, 1, 2, 3 or 4. And is it the nationality of the giver or of the receiver that determines the number?

  2. In Sweden you greet and say goodbye with a grunt, a handshake, or possibly – if you know each other well – an inter-sex based hug.

    Two guys can hug if they know each other really, really well, or belong to some – in the eyes of the general population – suspect subculture.

  3. Great Blog.
    I think French mannners imitators are even worse.
    Both-cheek kissing is mandatory in Munich if you want to belong to the furiously fast D’Dorf crowd, which has been showing Bavarians how to do advertising, and lately, unfortunately, how to behave, and recently, tragically, how to think.

    I am a purist though – I take my cues from the French directly: they do not Paris-kiss all over the place in Munich. Cool.

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