What They Don’t Teach You in French Class, Part II: To Bise or not to Bise

How to Get (Really) Familiar with the French

January 23, 2012By David JaggardC'est Ironique!
Paris-Update Puckered-Lips
Incoming! A cheek’s-eye view of France.

France. Grown men kissing other men. What’s up with that? This, or words to that effect, was what I said to myself as a child back in the Midwest when I first became aware of the French practice of cheek kissing. I had probably just seen President De Gaulle on TV presenting a Legion of Honor badge to some soldier, probably for valor in the struggle to make the world safe for Camembert.

As a child of a society in which nonbelligerent intragender physical contact of any kind was essentially nonexistent (and even intergender lip contact was discouraged), I found this to be consumingly weird. Guys kissing! In public! Don’t they know that it makes them look, ah, French?

After I moved here, I quickly learned that the cheek kiss, or bise, is indeed an ingrained part of social interaction in France. It more or less goes hand in hand, or rather jowl to jowl, with calling someone tu, the familiar form of address that is also nonexistent in the United States, and which I discussed in last week’s column.

If you’re going to live in France, you have to learn the rules for bise-ing. No one ever actually enumerated them for me, but, according to what I’ve figured out (so far), it works like this:

1. You shake hands with everybody upon first meeting.

2. Thereafter, you continue shaking hands upon future meetings with formal acquaintances, and with male friends if you are a man.

3. But you bise your friends, and possibly coworkers, of the opposite sex, and also of the same sex if you are a woman.

Still with me so far? You might want to take notes.

4. If you are a man, you bise other men only if they are really, really close friends.

After nearly 30 years in France I have only two male friends with whom I exchange bises, and both are American. That’s how confused we are about this practice.

5. Everybody, no matter who they are, can bise children.

6. Children, no matter who they are, hate it.

And who can blame them? Big gnarly grownups with bristly cheeks and wine breath getting in their sweet little faces all the time. Yuk. Or “Yeuque,” as they would say.

All of that’s complicated enough to merit a flowchart, but you also have to learn the proper procedure. To summarize the Bise Basic Drill Manual:

1. If you’re both wearing glasses, at least one of you has to take them off. The alternative is lens damage or whiplash.

2. Start with the right cheek – in other words, turn your head to the left as you lean forward.

If you go the wrong way, you’ll cause an embarrassing nasal collision, possibly accompanied by an inadvertent (and decidedly non-erotic) exchange of bodily fluids. It’s unpleasant for both parties, and any unwanted consequences are not covered by health insurance.

Novices take note! Very important point coming up:

3. You don’t actually kiss the other person. You just lightly brush cheeks and sort of launch an air-kiss earward.

3a. Unless you want your bise-ee to know that you, shall we say, wouldn’t necessarily be averse to a non-non-erotic exchange of bodily fluids. Actually, this can come in quite handy and, best of all, any unwanted consequences are covered by health insurance.

3b. If you are intimacy challenged, or obliged to bise someone with whom you’d rather exchange pistol shots at 20 paces (it happens), you can even feign the cheek contact part, leaving a cootie gap of a few millimeters between your respective epidermises.

4. Repeat on the other cheek. That is, if you can remember steps 1 through 3b well enough to run through them again.

Got all that? We’re not finished. Then there are a number of special considerations – the Bise Bylaws:

1. Friends in social situations bise for both “hello” and “goodbye,” whereas coworkers on the job only bise for “hello” in the morning (if that – it depends on company tradition) (and, in practice, how skeevy the heterosexual male employees are – see 3a above).

2. You give additional, immediate “thank-you” bises upon receiving a gift.

3. Women give additional, immediate “congratulations” bises to other women upon the announcement of life-changing good news (engagements, pregnancies, DNA matches, etc.).

4. Somewhere in the middle of France is an invisible border, approximately following the Loire River, south of which people do four rather than two bises, twice on each cheek, right-left-right-left. This is very time-consuming and probably has a lot to do with their lower production levels and higher flu rate.

5. Everybody bises everybody indiscriminately on New Year’s.

This includes guys bise-ing guys who are casual acquaintances. And it also includes skeevy, testosterone-addled lechers forcibly slobbering on every attractive woman, complete stranger or not, who crosses their path at midnight on December 31, pretending that it’s just a “Happy New Year” bise.

If you’re a woman, it’s a good idea to carry antibacterial mouthwash spray and a teargas pen if you’re out on New Year’s. And it’s an even better idea not to confuse the two.

But generally speaking, the people on your Spit List for bise-ing will be pretty much the same people on your tu roster, as explained last week – leaving out the animals and crime suspects but, what the hell, including the deities.

So, if the Virgin Mary appears before you more than once, you can kiss her starting from the second time. But keep in mind: I’m pretty sure she’s from south of the Loire.

This topic always reminds me of something I saw on French TV a couple of years ago. Flipping through the channels in an idle moment, I happened upon a documentary about a motorcycle gang in France. These were real outlaw types, with the choppers, the denim jackets with skulls on the back, the beards and tattoos, the willful violation of the helmet law, etc., etc.

The camera crew was following them on a “run” to some kind of Harley-intensive get-together. When they arrived, they encountered a bunch of bikers from another gang. The two groups slowly, coolly faced off in a row, staring at each other, adjusting their belts, spitting, cracking the knuckles, and… and… and…

And then started giving each other bises.

What makes France different from the United States? Let’s see, there’s the wine, the cheese, of course the language, the architecture… Oh, and bikers kissing other bikers. What’s up with that?


© 2012 Paris Update


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