French Kissing … by Numbers

As with other Latins in Europe, all the proper French will greet you with The Kiss, but the 100-euro question for the outsider is how many kisses and when — and the answers turn out to be a cultural labyrinth rivalling Reignac-sur-Indre.

Get it right carry a kissing map of France

According to the Karambolage writers of this video clip, a proper and socially correct Greeting Kiss first requires some diligent homework — and preferably a map.

(Karambolage on ARTE, first screened 20/5/07. Text: Nikola Obermann. Image: Marc Chevalier, Leslie David and Joris Clerté. Karambolage is a magazine programme broadcast on the ARTE channel on Sundays at 20h00. It examines everyday cultural peculiarities in France and Germany).

To those keen to blend in without a blush, four critical questions apply before you can hope to get the Kissing formalities right: when, who, how and how many?

Kissing, as Nikola Obermann makes clear, is an art form that requires elegant flair, a grasp of the “know-your-customer” mentality and a penetrating understanding of cultural norm, class and geography for starters — so just saying hello, with a casual wave of your hand, is a serious faux pas, an invitation to social suicide.

Indeed as the Obermann video shows, kissing confusion affects even the French so do feel some pity for all the innocent non-French visitors who stumble into this intricate social maze.

The Karambolage team is however determined to make life easier for all, particularly for German neighbours, and its video sets out to explain all the bear traps.

Starting halfway down the list the team tackles the  ‘who‘ and ‘how many‘ issues. The answer to ‘who‘ they say, requires considerable thought about family links, the level of friendship, your working relationship, the age of those involved and the social status of all parties concerned. For instance you can’t go around kissing your boss or rather you should wait to see if he’s going to kiss you first. But you can kiss you work colleagues as much as you want. Men do not always kiss each other although they might do so if they are friends or relatives. Young people, as is to be expected, kiss as much and as often as they can .

The real trouble starts with the number of kisses and their type and quality. Firstly is it an air kiss, a cheek kiss, or a smacker on the lips (no definitively not the last one).  People from Paris kiss twice, people from Montpellier and Gard however kiss three times. In some regions people even kiss four times. Grab a map and start plotting your kissing co-ordinates they suggest.

Unfortunately for culturally deaf visitors, the French do not wear easily identified regional and class labels like the appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) or terroir  descriptions so assiduously and handily tagged onto every corner of the country. So a map won’t really be of much help in determining your skills in exchanging la bise, and the friendly gossip and social niceties that go with it.

Peppers labeled with 'Appellation d'origine co...

Hot Lips: Espelette Peppers are ‘Appellation d’origine contrôlée’. (Credit: Wikipedia)

This can make it somewhat unsettling for a visitor blind to  all the nuances at play in the Kissing Game.

While you might comfortably assume that three kisses are the norm, the person you are greeting — and whose origins and class you are unaware of — has since childhood trained in the two bise regime. Things then could become a little awkward as you reach out for a third cheek peck to find the other person already turning away. Worse still is when you  stop after two kisses while your new acquaintance intends to deliver a full monty of four.

Even the French, the script writers agree, do not really know how many kisses to give. “People from the same city frequently disagree on the number” the film notes,  and the reason is bound up in culture and class. Greeting Kisses require you to take social status into account. In France social class distinction remains important so, in a nutshell, ventures Obermann (standing well back for a barrage of corrections ), working class people tend to kiss more than middle and upper middle class.

Then there is another pitfall. How you deliver your Greeting Kiss will, in true Liza Doolittle fashion, instantly identify you. The uncomfortable foreigner will probably try to lean forward with lips pursed and arms dangling limply by his side not daring to touch the other, not knowing which cheek to start on and not knowing if he is actually supposed to brush the other person with his lips.

Of course you should not confuse the Greeting Kiss with the French Kiss of  the smutty movie kind that some schoolboys were once raised on. Real kissing bears none of these cultural obstacles.

That said — and this being France — a Greeting Kiss can, the video suggests, sometimes be an ever-so-subtle form of flirting.  How do you know?  You just have to follow your feelings, the film-makers say, warning that if you don’t really know the person it is always  better to err on the side of caution.

The Rue 89 website has a useful guide to the art of Greeting with a Kiss here

Story: Ken Pottinger

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