Welcome to the first installment of my Cultural Differences series!
Today's topic is La Bise - or how to greet someone.
In Holland, where I grew up, when you meet someone for the first time, you shake hands. If you know someone well (on a personal level) you give three kisses on the cheeks. If you go to school/college or work and you meet people you see on a daily basis, you just say 'good morning' or 'hello' and you join the group, or continue on.
When we moved to the US, it was quite similar, only the kisses were replaced by hugs (I like hugs, and I think they are friendlier for people wearing glasses than kisses).
But then we moved to France. The handshaking part was still the same. The kisses on the cheek at first seemed to be similar to those in Holland, but there were two instead of three - which then sometimes created awkward situations when we, used to giving three kisses, were aiming for the other person's right cheek again when he/she was already turning away - so not such a big deal. But then one day, shortly after we moved here, we were at the bank, it was around 9 am, so many employees were coming in (this was the head office). Each and every one of them stopped at the reception desk to give the receptionist two kisses. We thought this was a bit over the top, the poor woman was getting up from her desk to greet her colleagues about every 10 minutes! Couldn't they just say good morning and move on?
No, apparently not. When I got to work in an office, the ritual was the same. I know my husband doesn't do the rounds like that when he comes in, and I think some colleagues hold it against him (he, however, couldn't care less and prefers to have a few colds and stomach bugs less by just saying hello and going to his desk).
So it seemed clear: kisses are for friends and colleagues (male of female, it doesn't matter), if you meet someone for the first time, you shake hands.
No, no, that was all too easy! If you meet someone for the first time, but that person is family/friend/colleague of someone you know well and who is there with you (and you therefore greet with two kisses), you greet that person with two kisses as well!!
I met a client for the first time last week, but we'd had lots of contact by phone and email in the weeks prior to the meeting, so we greeted each other with... "la bise". And immediately after that I got to greet all her colleagues (OK, there were only three, and two of them I already knew) with two kisses as well.
Sometimes there is a little uncertainty on both ends - maybe with someone you have only met once when you were together with a mutual friend - and then one of you might say "on fait la bise, non ?", which you can then obviously only answer with a positive response!
So it seems I'm getting the hang of it, although there was a bit of an awkward moment a while ago when I opened the door to our babysitter. I just greeted her with a 'bonsoir' and let her in. But now that I think of it, she probably expected to 'faire la bise'.
We're probably seen by some people around us as the foreigners who just say hello, but I prefer it that way than making the faux-pas of kissing someone when it's not at all appropriate.
And of course, as there are exceptions in France to everything, there are exceptions to these greeting rules as well: this weekend we went away and stayed in a friend's apartment in a ski-resort. She was there too, in an another apartment in the same building, together with her parents. They invited us for a drink one day and - according to the things I just wrote - after greeting my friend with two kisses, I assumed we'd be greeted with 'la bise' from her parents too, but no, it was a handshake... (so now I'm confused again)!
How do you greet people in your part of the world? Is there a difference between men and women? Between personal and work contacts? Are you a reserved kisser/hugger too?