Saturday, July 25, 2009

Is a Kiss Just a Kiss?

My husband goes to work each morning and kisses several women. This isn’t because we have an open relationship, but because he is French, and when you work in a French office, this is what you do. You don’t just hunker down and work, first you do the rounds and say hello to everyone, and if you are male and they are female, you do the bise or kiss each other on the cheek 2, 3, or 4 times, depending on what region you are in. If it’s a guy you shake hands. If you are female, you are out of luck, you have to kiss everyone. There are ways of avoiding this, of course, you can rush in and sort of wave and just kiss the people you work with who sit near you.

I’m a freelancer, and at the moment I work at an international organization, so I rarely have to deal with kissing people in work situations. I’ve often thought, however, that there’s a lot to be said for this custom. I’ve wondered what it would be like if people in offices in New York were required to kiss each other every morning. I daresay, things would be different. Instead of gritting ones teeth and plowing through the office to one’s desk, one would have to interact with one’s co-workers. One would have to be cordial, at least for a brief moment. You can’t possibly kiss someone with grit teeth. One would have to say at least “hey, how are ya?” before one got down to the mean business of doing business.

A little while after the requisite bonjours, kisses, and handshaking are done, there is the morning coffee break. This is when everyone gathers around the coffee machine and there are more, at least superficially cordial interactions. I’ve never seen a study done correlating productivity with cordial coffee breaks, but something tells me this is not a bad thing.

The bise happens under all sorts of non-work circumstances too, particularly social occasions. This can be daunting, particularly if you are invited to a get together where you don’t know many people. You may find yourself going around a room serial kissing dozens of strangers. The same is required when leaving said get together, which can get tricky when everyone is leaving at the same time. I remember watching in amazement one evening after I first moved here, as a group of about a half a dozen people on a street huddled in a circle and started kissing each other goodbye. As I watched their heads bobbing about I wondered how they managed not to clonk craniums.

Now try to imagine such a kissy country facing up to the challenge of swine flu. According to the papers here, we are all going to die come October. Or at least get the flu. We are not supposed to sneeze in public or shake hands, and the bise is off limits. So far, I have not seen any sign compliance with these rules, or the flu, for that matter. But if things do get funky in the fall, will the bise really fall by the wayside? It seems impossible, but you never know...


David said...

Well, common courtesy is to not kiss when you're sick, it even becomes part of the ritual, as you say "I can't kiss you I'm sick" instead of kissing. :-)

Now that it'll prevent the swine flu from spreading anyway.

Starman said...

It will interesting to see how that works out, because instead of just one person not kissing, it will be everyone. And the duration could be many months. I have read that most affected by this flu are children.

Larry Davis said...

I enjoy reading your blog--it makes me want to move to France!

I can't imagine the French giving up any custom to prevent swine flu. I like this custom although I'm a typical American who is always guarding his "space."

About the socialization aspect of your blog--back in 1998 I was doing research for my thesis at the Sorbonne. The archive I visited daily was staffed by a head librarian and three assistants. The first three days I arrived at the archive (I would show up at 9:30 am sharp, ready to do a full day of research), I would see the staff jump up from a break table (in the middle of their joint office), put the coffee pot away, and rush to take care of my document requests. They were never rude, but it was obvious to me that I was crashing an important time of day--the morning coffee break.

After getting this clue, I began arriving at 9:45, just as they were returning to their desks. The service became much more efficient and I was greeted with smiles when I arrived. I visited at least three days a week for three months and at one point the librarian allowed me access to the archives, where I could walk in and take boxes off the shelves, and allowed me unlimited copying priveleges. I didn't get to the "kissing" stage but learned a lot of about the importance of socializing to the French.

I tell my students this story all the time--I wish the American workplace was less about the primacy of "work" and more about being human.

Margie Rynn said...

I like that story...good illustration of the way not just socializing, but social customs are important here...It's really disorienting to an American at first, you feel like there is some secret code that you have no access to. You broke the code in the library, you respected their routine, their way of doing things, and they appreciated it. Funny how customs, which seem so formal and arbitrary in a way, can make people more human.

FN said...

I work here in Paris for a French company and have caught more colds and flus in the last year than in the previous 10 combined. Either I am getting weaker with age or this annoying habit of shaking everyone's hand in the morning is to blame.

I thought it was nice at first, now I simply see it as a time-wasting nuisance. Don't even get me started on the coffee break immediately after....

David said...

FN if you catch more colds here in France, it's not because of the kisses and the handshakings, but most likely because your immune system is less resistant to the European germs. I would catch random colds all the time in the US and the fly yearly, while in France, it rarely happens.

And if you don't like coffee breaks, maybe you're not made for working in France. You know, working is not only about being a drone and work all-day until you're exhausted and all of your life until you die.

It's about living to work or working to live.

Margie Rynn said...

FN: I predict that within a year or so, one of two things will happen: either you'll get fed up and ask to be transferred, or you'll go native and actually start looking forward to those coffee breaks! It takes a while to get used to life here...a year is a mere blip when it comes to cultural acclimatization.

Chicsetera Paris said...

Swine flu aside I find the friendly air kisses one of my favourite things about France. In fact I make everyone else I know outside of France do it too! ;-)


--daily CHIC news from Paris--