Hugs and Kisses
At first, we Americans are tempted to shake hands, as kissing is a very personal greeting to us, usually reserved for close family members and lovers.
As a general rule in France, girls kiss both boys and girls upon meeting. Boys will normally only kiss girls, unless it is a close friend or family member, in which case it is perfectly normal for guys to do a cheek-to-cheek kiss with a male counterpart.
Because kisses are such an integral part of interaction in France, one might think that this implies that the French are more comfortable with intimate displays of affection, right? Not necessarily. Try hugging a French person.
My girlfriend (who is French) and I are currently traveling in the US for a few weeks. We have been using a French guidebook to get around, as I don’t have a guidebook for my own country. In this book, there is a section dedicated to social etiquette and respect in the United States called Faire/Ne Pas Faire.
Almost every time that we have met up with a friend or family member, we have brought out the list. “Make sure you pronounce your H’s. Don’t drink in the streets. Not leaving a tip will lead to a horrible impression of one’s character.” Though these are all interesting (and important to know), the following suggestion is by far my favorite:
Ne faites pas la bise, quel que soit votre sexe, ça ne se fait pas. On se serre la main, en plus tendre, on se fait des “Hugs” (grandes embrassades avec tapes affectueuses dans le dos et grognements béats).
In summation, (when in the United States) don’t greet people with kisses, especially if they are the same sex as you. They don’t do that. One shakes hands, or more affectionately, one does a “hug” (big embrace with affectionate pats on the back and blissful growls or grunts).
Do French people really not know how to hug? I asked my girlfriend and she confessed that when she first visited the U.S., she was not sure of proper hugging etiquette. She thought that she was supposed to gently place her arms around her counterpart, and rest her chin upon their shoulders, only letting go when the other person made the first move.
If one is not used to hugging those that are not their lovers, then this makes sense. French people do hug, but this is usually reserved for couples. Hence the reason why people from France might melt in your arms (if they are not uncomfortably squirming) when you are greeting them with a hug.
If you happen to visit France and feel awkward during the kissing process, don’t feel bad. Just know that a French person might feel equally maladroit in your homeland when you are tapping them on the back and affectionately grunting.All images © John-Paul Fortney