Monday, March 11, 2013

Cultural Differences - La Bise

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?


Mina said...

Oh, I hate la bise. I am a reluctant random kisser, and with people I spend more time, it is pointless to kiss all the time, we'd spend half the time together just doing la flippin' bise. Then when strangers are present, it is awkward to do it on preferential basis, but I don't like faire la bise with strangers. Pfft, not easy. I do not mind being thought of as weird and unpredictable in this respect. So I just play it by ear. Sometimes on fait la bise, sometimes on s'en fout.
In Germany people are more like the Dutch. I really like both for this. Handshakes all around and la bise juste pour la famille et comme la famille. Are we adults or what
Not to mention the awkward moments when you lean to the right and the other to the left, but being face to face, it's the same side, and you end up kissing them on the mouth. And you have a sudden reaction and try to correct the stance by thrusting yourself in the opposite direction, which of course is also the other's reaction as well, and you end up in the same bloody stupid mouth kissing all over again. Now with added awareness. Nothing says 'mais putain, arrête' than that, eh?

It is funny to notice that again, I only need to hear just a couple of words in Fr and I immediately switch to thinking in Fr. I use En far more than I ever did Fr, yet Fr is the only language I instantly switch to when I hear it en passant. Where I live there are a couple of French neighbours, and it only takes hearing them say two words to each other for me to say 'bjr, merci' when I am paying for my shopping 5 minutes later. I so hated Fr when I was studying it in high school and Uni, and now this... Hmm. :-)

Kathy said...

What an interesting post about a topic that I have spent little to no time ever thinking about! Yes, here in the States I mostly greet acquaintances by saying "hello." Good friends, especially those I haven't seen it awhile and close family members get a hug. Really close friends and family members sometimes also get kisses, usually on the cheek, though my parents I typically still kiss on the lips and my husband of course.

I have a few Italian friends that do the kissing on both cheeks thing, but that's my only real experience, that I recall with that.

On a related note, for some reason your post made me think of how when I was in college a creative doctor named Patch Adams came to visit us/the dorm I lived in my freshman year, though I think I was a sophomore at the time and returned to visit/meet him. Anyway, he told us a story of a school (either jr. high or high school) where they outlawed hugging, because the public displays of affection were getting too out of controls, from the adults'/school administrators' perspective. So the students came up with their own way of expressing their affection for their friends, that didn't break the rules... They touched each others noses! I always thought that was a cute story and for awhile after Dr. Adams told us the story, some of my friends and I would touch each others' noses when we greeted each others! :) What a fun memory, thank you for that!

I may have to do a separate post, including most of my comment here, on my blog, as I think my readers would appreciate this discussion and might want to chime in via commenting here or their own blog entry.

Great first post! Love your new series on Cultural Differences! :)

St Elsewhere said...

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?

I am a reserved kisser and hugger too. I don't really go bear on someone easily, and I mark the people who are likely to do it, and tend to mentally ready myself for it.

The polite way is a Namaste. The way to greet elders and other respected people is to touch their feet, but the office thing is a Hello.

Men will hug each other, shake hands...I think they are more physical in their expression than the women.

Valery said...

Ahhhh, memories of a holiday in Argentina 2003. We had a translator/guide, a young girl (20 something) and we had asked if we could join her for an evening out.
And like you describe the friend-of-a-friend kissing thing happened. So all night I was being kissed by dark strangers in the night. And Every Single Time I was just too surprised to also catch their names!
(and yes, our guide seemed to know everyone!)

areyoukiddingme said...

I am someone who enjoys a 2 foot radius of personal space. Greetings for me involve saying hi. We had to break my BIL of the habit of hugging and kissing us all the time, as we are not a demonstrative family. Somehow, though, I have given birth to a European child. She took up the "faire la bise" when she was about 2. She uses it more for a farewell or good night, but still - I have no idea where she got it from. My MIL is imported from Italy, so perhaps it's something that skips a generation but is still written in the DNA.