In cold, rainy England, where we try to limit physical contact with unknowns (and sometimes friends) as much as possible, and where being accidentally brushed by someone on the tube warrants an apology (on the part of the brushed, that is), the idea of kissing somebody you have just met is, despite our (vague) awareness of our continental neighbours, not really done. Unless you’re being a pretentious prick like I was
at around 16 when a friend and I would always exchange three kisses on the cheek when we greeted and parted. We thought we were so cute and special, not realising that the triple bise is the standard greeting of an entire country. A small one, granted. But a country nevertheless.
I generally like this European habit of kissing on the cheek as a greeting, though this naturally depends on whom you are required to kiss. Furthermore, hidden beneath the surface of this charming social ritual lie endless perils, social pitfalls and potential awkwardness, a large number of which I have experienced. If you’re picturing me exchanging graceful pecks on cheeks with strangers over glasses of sparkling rosé and platters of continental cheeses, revelling in my elegance, dignity and physical ease around strangers, THINK AGAIN.
For a start, there’s the name of the thing. Generally we exchange bises when we kiss on the cheek, though a familiar word for kiss is also bisou. Just to complicate things, though, there is also the word baiser, which means kiss if you use it as a noun but if you confuse this and use it as a verb (the word kiss in English is, after all, also both noun and verb) it means… well. How to put this delicately? It means “to fuck”. So you can give someone a baiser but if you baise, it is rather a different level of intimacy. Being in the youthful milieu that I am, no prizes for guessing in which form I hear this word more, which is why generally my heart stutters which shock for the first split second after I hear the word “baiser” come out of a child’s mouth.
There are rules to this thing, too, you know. Here in Vaud, at least, you don’t actually KISS a person’s cheeks, you weirdo! No, you touch cheeks, and all your lips are responsible for is making loud smacking noises. Those noises are an important social necessity. I didn’t realise this when I first arrived, giving stonily silent bises to the consternation of my kiss-ees. These days I notice if someone doesn’t make noises while we exchange bises. I’ve also experienced that odd person (generally men I won’t lie) who literally kisses your cheeks. As in, neck rotating round at each turn to land a wet smacker directly on each unhappy chop. Shudder.
Then there’s the question of what to do with the rest of your body while you’re touching cheeks with someone, often someone you are not particularly close to. Do you not touch at all, bodies metres apart and arms akimbo, while you lean in at the waist to limit physical contact to your bumping cheekbones? Seems a bit strange. Do you hug that person? This is actually quite difficult to do while trying to touch cheeks. In England we tend to hug our friends and sometimes without realising it I have gone in for a hug while someone has been looming toward me with lips puckered, and the result is generally a bumbling dance of awkwardness. A good compromise seems to be to lightly put your hand on that person’s elbow; this works best if you both do it with the same arm, to avoid a bizarre arm situation where you are trying to grab the elbow of the arm trying to grab yours.
If the Swiss three-time kiss seems excessive, in France the figure can rise to four depending on the region, but in my experience so far it is two. I forgot this once in France when greeting a boyfriend’s housemate, and after exchanging two kisses I went straight in for a third, to his obvious consternation (not to mention my boyfriend’s, who was watching and wondering why I was going back for more), as he had started to withdraw but I was still diving in. Another time I accidentally left a Swiss gentleman hanging with just two bises, while he leant forward, waiting for the third with a crestfallen look on his face. Social awkwardness.
One of the most common problems is whether to go for the right cheek or left cheek first. I would say starting with the right cheek (my instinct) is marginally more common than the left, but it really depends on the person, and where they come from. But of course if the person you are kissing starts on the opposite side to you, often your faces come uncomfortably close and you end up almost exchanging a REAL kiss. Or you end up performing head movements that look like you are rehearsing a Bollywood dance routine, or doing a ghetto neck roll. The hazards are endless, I tell you!
Trying to talk while touching cheeks three times and making the compulsory smacking noises? Awkward. Trying to kiss someone three times when they are considerably taller than you and not bending down? Awkward. Going in at different speeds/intensities? Awkward. Losing your balance while leaning in, so you fall on the person/step on them? Awkward. Misjudging distance and bumping cheekbones a bit too hard, so that what was meant to be a friendly greeting ends up hurting both parties? Awkward. Trying to kiss someone when they are not Swiss or French (probably English) and clearly not expecting it, let alone thrice, and is obviously not used to it and looks uncomfortable and unwilling but is undergoing what is clearly torture to them for the sake of manners? Awkward.
I would like to say I’ve never experienced any of the above. Maybe those laid-back continentals just don’t experience awkwardness; there is no word that directly correlates to “awkward” in French, after all. But I’m English, and in England “awkward” is not just a word, it’s an essential part of our social heritage. Just be warned, my children, that’s all. It’s a dangerous business, this bise/baiser stuff; a positive social minefield. Be warned.