There are a lot of things the French do that bother me. The administrative red tape, the distant public personas, the frustratingly aloof academic system — if someone chucked them all in the Seine tomorrow morning, I wouldn’t mind a bit. At times, being here in Paris makes me appreciate many parts of life in America that I always took for granted before.
But if there’s one aspect of French society that I think America could really learn from, it’s the necessity to “faire la bise” — the characteristically European greeting in which both parties ceremoniously kiss cheeks.
Granted, not everyone continues the tradition of the bise. As France — and Europe in general — has become more Americanized, handshakes often replace the bise as the standard greeting, especially in professional settings.
Every day, I pass by groups of swaggering guys my age who wouldn’t dream of kissing each other’s cheeks in any situation.
But for every hand I shake, I exchange at least three bises. At any party you attend here, the polite way to greet a new acquaintance is to faire la bise.
It speaks to the tenacity of the French national character that, even during the international scare over the H1N1 flu last year and a public warning from the Ministry of Health against kissing in public, the French carried on their traditional greeting.
I’m a hug man myself, but hugs here are considered overtly sexual. So it has to be the bise.
There’s something incredibly intimate and personal about leaning in for the bise. It requires a lot of practice to perfect your aim — you have to hit the cheek right at the soft spot, to avoid uncomfortable cheekbones and the like — and the appropriate amount of kissing noise is a matter of personal choice.
What’s more, to faire la bise is to share a remarkably poignant moment with the other person, even if your partner is a newly introduced stranger.
Unlike a handshake or even a hug, in which you can easily avoid any real, meaningful contact by extending a weak arm or shoving your butt out to shy away from an intimate embrace, the bise is literally right in your face.
It’s hard to keep your distance when you meet someone in France. You are forced to take in the person, and they you, bluntly forcing your faces into one another’s most guarded personal space.
And when you say goodbye at the end of the night, it’s the same graceful gesture — exact, intimate and achingly delicate.
Maybe Americans could learn something about greeting one another from the French example. Often, especially in recent years, America is described as a country without connections, a country where people have a hard time relating to their fellow man.
Have we been weak-hand-shaked and butt-out-hugged to the point where our greetings are superfluous gestures, meant to convey our understanding of propriety and manners rather than our actual delight in meeting a new acquaintance or coming across an old friend?
I vote we look to the French, as we have so often in the past for food and fashion advice. But this time, I say we look to their habit of kissing each other’s cheeks.
It might not catch on right away — or ever, for that matter — but still I encourage it.
To brush cheeks with a stranger is to know a little more about them, and that’s something we all could use a little more of.
Nick Andersen is a sophomore journalism and history major from Milford, Mich. He is studying abroad in Paris. Contact Nick at email@example.com.