French Mayor Aude Picard-Wolff has made waves for refusing to greet colleagues with a traditional kiss on each cheek, sending an email in December to the 73 village councillors saying: “From now on, I would prefer to shake hands, like men do.” Picard-Wolff of the French village of Morette told news site The Local that kissing each of her 73 colleagues wastes time, is unhygienic, and “shows an inequality between men and women”.
In many social and professional contexts in France, it is customary for women to greet men and women with a kiss on each cheek. While men might kiss close male friends, they generally shake hands with male colleagues.
Her email, which Picard-Wolff says was well-received by her colleagues, has sparked a public debate over the custom. The row comes amidst widespread reflection on sexual harassment in the workplace in the wake of allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.
In the past, most criticism of “la bise” has come from foreigners uncomfortable with the greeting. British comedian Paul Taylor’s video about “la bise” went viral at the end of 2016.
But Mayor Picard-Wolff has French people in her corner too. “I have received many letters of support from women congratulating me for having the courage to say out loud what so many are thinking. Many don’t want to do “la bise” but don’t dare say anything,” she told Elle Magazine.
The popularity of the custom, which dates back to Roman times, has ebbed and flowed. The plague in the fourteenth century put a damper on kissing and it didn’t revive completely until after the First World War.
Until then, kissing outside an intimate social circle was restricted to the lower class, said sociologist Dominique Picard. “The kiss was reserved for close relationships and family members. Men would kiss their brothers but not their friends. Young women have been kissing each other since the 19th century, but the tradition of very young men and women kissing really dates to the 1970s,” she said. “And now, you see people of all ages doing ‘la bise’.”
The custom has continued to evolve in recent decades, leaving some confused. Who do you kiss? In what context? And how many times? Two is most common, but it can vary from one to five — on very rare occasions — depending on the region of France. The website”Combien de bises?” (How many kisses) tracks differences across the country.
Generational differences persist, explains philosopher Gérald Cahen. “What’s notable today is that everyone kisses everyone. In our parents and grandparents generations, you wouldn’t kiss an adult after the first meal you had together.” Until recently, he noted, it would not have occurred to him to embrace a male friend, but the practice has expanded across gender lines.
So how do you know what to do? “The rule is simple: do what everyone else around you is doing,” said Picard. But therein lies the problem for some women, who feel pressured to go with the flow.
French blogger Romy Duhem-Verdièrewrote in August about her experience asking colleagues to shake, high-five, or smile and wave instead of kissing. She described feeling torn about whether to say anything, not wanting to sour the office’s collegial and friendly atmosphere or come off as vain for imposing her preferences when the custom is so widespread. In the end, she sent her colleagues a memo and they made the change easily.
Twitter is abuzz with suggestions about how to navigate and even change the kissing culture. User EbeZolli says that she has taken to asking people if they’d like to be kissed instead of doing it automatically. “This evening, someone responded, ‘Wow, that made me think about it, and I find the ‘bise’ an arbitrary and lame convention.'”
Another Twitter user Yohan Melotti suggested that one might break the kissing cycle simply by offering to shake hands in the morning instead of kissing. “It’s French custom to kiss people we know well, even amongst men, depending on where you live. If the habit bothers you, offer your hand in the morning. It’ll be clear that we shouldn’t offer the cheek.”
As for Mayor Picard-Wolff, she floated the idea of badges indicating one’s kissing preferences, but ultimately she is happy simply to have inspired further conversation.