I have a confession to make. When I left France all these years ago, I had a not-quite-subconscious feeling of relief at the thought that I’d never have to kiss people ever again unless I actually wanted to. There you go, I said it, and I’m sure that with this statement I have managed to offend the three-quarters of the French population, who will now ask: ‘are you even French anymore?’
This ‘kissing people on the cheek’ palaver is after all a French tradition whose origin is lost in times immemorial. It is the cultural backbone of the country. To people abroad, it is what we do, although it isn’t just the French who do it, but also the Swiss, the Belgians, the Quebecois and even the Serbs; but alright, it is most associated with my countrymen, and with reason. You can’t go anywhere in the country without being confronted left, right and centre with people kissing each other on the cheek. And even the men kiss each other! Well, not that much actually, they tend to prefer the manlier handshake, but it does happen, certainly more than it does in England. And in the UK, public opinion on cheek kissing broadly diverges into two groups: the ‘eww gross’ side, and the ‘isn’t it nice that people are so much more comfortable displaying affection’ side. But in France, it is a way of life.
To the unlearned it is a misleadingly simple process. Grab the person by the shoulders and kiss the cheek nearest to your face at the time and it’s done. Unfortunately it is not that simple. You need only do a simple search on Google to discover that you are standing at the tip of a very very large iceberg. There are forums and blogs on the internet on when to do it, who to do it to, how to do it right, the list goes on. As one such concerned individual put it in a forum, “I’ve noticed some people manage to kiss each other without making a smacking noise but I’ve never been very good at this, what’s your advice for doing it without pulling a face?”. My favourite question however, is ‘how many kisses?’
To give a few examples, in most of France, the practice is to give 2 kisses, starting with the right cheek. But in the east and in Provence, the practice is to give 2 kisses, generally starting with the left cheek. Then there’s Brest in Brittany, when it’s only one kiss; in the Massif Central, in the Drome, Gard and Hautes-Alpes, 3 kisses. And in Paris and the Loire Valley, it can be 2 or 4 kisses, generally starting from the right cheek. And this is just an overview. Who knows how the Serbs do it?
There is such a thing as kissing politics. On the playground, in the office, even at home, it is a social land mine, a potent force of nature capable of creating and breaking friendships in one minute flat. I’m trying to come up with an equivalent in the UK, and can’t think of anything with as much incendiary potential. Having been on the receiving end of the playground version, I know it gets tedious after a while. Imagine you are standing around with your friends at the start of school and a schoolmate joins your group, goes round everyone for the daily morning kisses, and makes a point of bypassing you altogether. Here’s to making your feelings known publicly without so much as a word said. OK, so maybe this is part of the reason why I’m not so keen on the practice anymore!
But it’s not all bad to live in a culture where it’s normal to kiss people on the cheek. It is friendly. You get to be in close contact with (good-looking) people you would otherwise never get anywhere near. Often it is actually a blessing to have something to do when you meet people. When in doubt, say hello with a kiss! Better that than the uncomfortable shuffling that I occasionally do in the UK whilst I rack my brain wondering if my interlocutor will recoil if I awkwardly hand-wave / hug / shake hands with / bow / run away from them.
Still, I am quietly confident that I am not the only know who thinks it’s a bit weird to have to kiss total strangers at parties just because they’re there or risk appearing stand-offish.