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Non! We French shouldn't have to kiss everyone we meet

French-British journalist Samantha David argues la bise for all should be consigned to history.

10 August 2020
Will 'la bise' survive in a post-coronavirus world?Will 'la bise' survive in a post-coronavirus world?
By Samantha David

La bise - should it still exist in French culture?

One of the victims of the Recent Unpleasantness and Ongoing Precautions is la bise – people in France have stopped offering each other their cheeks as a preliminary ritual in any social exchange. La bise had always been a moveable feast (aka social minefield). It all depends on who you are, who you’re greeting and in what circumstances.

Should it be two? Three? Or even four, or five? Should you actually kiss someone, or just approach their cheek with yours? Should you make a slight pout? An actual kissing noise? Should you lightly touch the shoulder while performing this routine, or just lean forward a fraction?

Given all these problematic parameters, you’d think people would have given it up donkey’s years ago, but no, certain people kiss everyone in the bar before sitting down. When I worked in a TV newsroom, certain people would spend the first 20-30 minutes of their day walking from desk to desk doing la bise – even with co-workers they disliked. I’m not alone in thinking this is mad.

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No time for la bise

In 2018, Anne Picard-Wolff, mayor of Morette in Isère, got so fed-up with colleagues doing la bise with everyone multiple times a day for New Year that she banned it. In an email explaining the ban to councillors, she said it not only passed on colds and flu but was also a massively time-wasting and complex way of establishing unnecessary and unwelcome hierarchy.

I agree with her – why pretend to kiss someone you can’t stand? Why kiss someone you hardly know? Why kiss someone you’ve only just met? It’s bonkers. La bise gives lecherous old men an excuse for a grope, and nasty women the chance to humiliate an unfortunate individual by pointedly excluding them from a kissing circuit of 150million almost total strangers. I particularly dislike doing la bise in the summer, having other people’s facial sweat rubbed into your cheek... 

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And even when la bise is not actively unpleasant, I just can’t see the point in going through a meaningless ritual with every second person you meet. As far as I’m concerned, a general “hello” suffices when joining an amorphous social group. As for colleagues, why pretend we’re close friends or family? If a pleasant nod or a smile won’t do, can’t we shake hands?

Don’t get me wrong. When I meet friends and family I genuinely like and am genuinely pleased to see, I’m more than glad to kiss them. Being me, I usually go in for a bear hug to boot. I might even do back-slapping or (for children) annoying cheek- pinching, head-patting or hair-ruffling.

And that’s my whole point. In my opinion, la bise should only be deployed to express genuine affection. So I hope, after this period of Ongoing Precautions, we shift to doing la bise with our nearest and dearest, rather than every Tom, Dick and Henri.

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