Lean In, The Hard Way

Posted by Big Daddy Paul in Living in France

I know awkward. Some people can recite the teams in every Superbowl. Some knit sweaters for their pets. My specialty in life: getting myself into awkward situations. It’s a gift, really. I am like Don Draper except that I make people’s skin crawl instead of arousing them.

This is especially true here in France, where I do awkward like Monet did water lilies. Differences in language, culture, currency, politics, units of measure and hat-ware preferences all conspire against me to turn my life into a living hell.

Oddly, the thing that causes me the most anxiety here is the simple act of saying hello. In the United States, things are relatively straightforward. You greet new people with a handshake, you greet friends with a hug and if you are sweaty or haven’t showered in a few days, you just sort of wave at people and say, “Hi there!” All of these are accepted means of introduction, as are high fives, bro hugs and knuckle bumps.

Here, the rules are different. The standard greeting is called “la bise” and involves kissing one another on each cheek. You make lip-cheek contact, but don’t firmly plant. You can go twice on each cheek, supposedly, but the standard practice around here appears that you do each cheek once. You give bises to people you have just met, people you kinda know, people you know well and people you work with. This is true for woman-woman greetings, woman-man greetings and man-man greetings when the men are close. Importantly, kissing a hello is not sexy time, so don’t go grabbing any butt and, under no circumstances does that tongue come out of your mouth.

When we first got here, the French tried to help me through all this by leading me through the process like a nurse during a medical procedure. They’d lean in to me and tell me in a matter-of-fact voice, “I am going to give you bises now, that’s how we greet one another here,” and then we’d clunkily perform the ritual. It took some getting used to, but after a while, I finally got the memo.

Malcolm goes to an International school, though, and most of my time here is spent with people caught between cultures. Everyone seems to know the rule for engaging the French, but how do you deal with, say, a Greek living in France? Do you give them bises? Do you start with a handshake? Do you greet them the Greek way, with a hearty sniff to the groin? OK, that may not actually be true. Greeks don’t sniff groins. (If they did, theirs wouldn’t smell so bad!) When you are bi-cultural, you are often bi-curious as to what you should bi-do when you meet up with someone similarly situated.

So, most of my introductions are a swamp of unease. I’ve leaned into people who have lurched back and looked at me like I was “that uncle” at a Christmas party. Other times, people have leaned into me, only to run into a Walter Payton-esque stiff arm. (I don’t like touching cheeks with people when my face is sweaty, which, unfortunately for me, is around 90% of the time.) Mostly, my greetings involve two people who nervously stare at one another like a couple of gangly prepubescents in a closet at a junior high party, wondering, “What the hell should I do now?” I hate it.

Lean into this? Not likely.

Lean into this? Not likely.

Currently, I have two ways of coping. Sometimes, I just skip the salutation, figuring if I don’t say hello we don’t have to worry about it. Whereas most people greet one another with some sort of acknowledgement, I jump straight into conversation. You might say, “Hi, how are you doing?” I often open with things like, “I tasted whale last weekend.” There’s no room for kissing when things start with eating whale. Fact.

On the other extreme, I might start a conversation by just telling the other person, “Let’s be French!” and go in for the bises, all the while telling myself, “Don’t grab any butt!” This works well 10% of the time, with the remainder requiring an explanation as to why I just laminated their face with my sheen.

Neither of these approaches adequately quell my apprehension of beginning a conversation here. There are quite a few times when I just don’t make eye contact or find something terribly important on my phone that requires my undivided attention. Unsurprisingly, I am not very popular. Except for the Greeks. The Greeks, they love me.

There may come a time when introductions here become less stressful. Unfortunately for me, I think that time will only come when I have played “bises chicken” with everyone at least one time to determine what our standard greeting will be. Until then, lurchings, stiff arms, and awkward stares will continue to populate my already popular universe of awkward moments here in Paris.

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