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A French Kiss

A guide to the art of kissing in France

Kiss or no kiss

To kiss, or not to kiss? that is the eternal and mystifying question for those of us who have upped sticks from good old Blighty, and moved to France. If there is one aspect of the culture which defines the unbreachable gap between being British and being French, it is the etiquette surrounding the two kisses which are given on meeting and leaving friends. Or sometimes the three kisses. Or four. Or not. You see the problem? And this, my friends, is only the beginning of the confusion of the French kiss.

A kiss for a friend

Received general wisdom on the subject seems to be that kisses are only exchanged when greeting a friend. So far, so good. When, however, does an acquaintance become a friend? The lady who is our only neighbour here in France, known to us only as Madame, called at our house one day to ask if we had seen a stray dog. On arrival she kissed me and our children, but appeared horrified when my husband also stepped up for his kisses. Whoops… apparently, as she had met us several times the kisses are correct and expected, but as she had not met my husband previously, his greeting was decidedly over familiar… but how is a chap to know?

French kissing and greeting options

Some of the French people we meet shake hands on initial greetings, then exchange kisses on leaving… as if five minutes spent in the same room, even if not actually in conversation with us, confers friendship status and qualifies one for the kisses. Others kiss as soon as they are introduced to you, and then again we have been introduced to people who have remained at the handshaking stage throughout the initial introductions, only progressing to kisses at the second meeting. Confused with French etiquette? You will be…

How many French kisses?

The next question to address is the thorny problem of the exact number of kisses required. Some people say that one kiss each side is correct for most friends and acquaintances, reserving the more extravagant four kiss salute for close friends and family members (presumably ones you actually like). This would be fine, except that it is not accepted everywhere… Paris is a law unto itself in the kissing stakes, with its own rules and customs, the north is different from the south, and everybody's old Auntie has her own list of exceptions to the rule too! The customs vary from town to town, leaving even the French confused, so we incomers have no chance.

Solution to the number of French kisses

A friend of mine declares that she has found a solution to this, whispering "Deux" into the other person's ear when going in for the first kiss. This is fine unless the kissee, on moving in for the second kiss, whispers, equally firmly, "Non, quatre"! This game can be extended indefinitely if one of the players has a warped sense of humour.

The way to go with a French kiss

Further questions you might ask are: "Which side first?" (A tip here is always to wait to see which side the other person opts for… although in practice what tends to happen is that the other person, equally uncertain, is playing the same game, so you both hover, doing nothing, then finally both lunge for the same side at once, clashing noses as you go. There are no easy answers, this is France!)

Wearing glasses when kissing

And… "What happens if you both wear glasses?" This can be a problem, especially as sunglasses are de rigueur in most of France during the summer months. Many a kiss has ended in an unseemly scramble for tangled spectacles, and the only real solution to this seems to be to remove them first. This has the disadvantage (or advantage, in certain cases) of meaning that you cannot see the face of the person you are kissing.

Kissing to end all conversation

And finally, there is the problem of the overenthusiastic English. The ex-pat Englishman (or woman) is frequently the most terrifyingly confusing of all, a shining example of how a little knowledge can be a very dangerous thing. Determined to out French the French, they grab and kiss everything that moves, on meeting, during the meeting and afterwards too, to the point where it seems impossible to achieve any conversation in the midst of all the kissing.

English manners

The other type of Englishman is completely the opposite, though equally embarrassing. British reticence being his middle name, he stands, stiffly, avoiding eye contact with newcomers to the group, desperately trying to escape the embrace, causing the French to reinforce their cherished belief that the English have no manners. In future meetings neither French nor English know whether to attempt to kiss him or not, cue more confusion to add to the already hopelessly melting pot!

The best way to French kiss

To sum up? Give up… or rather, give yourself up to the experience of never knowing what to expect. Be ready for anything, follow rather than lead, and "Bon Chance, mon ami"!

Other articles you may find interesting:

Introduction to France
Life in France
Living in France

About the author

Joanna Simm moved to the Languedoc area of south-west France in October 2004 having found her property through French Property Links.

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