Even if the principle is always the same, we could name thousands of variations of la bise. This gesture, a pure social-construct that we have come to internalize, marks the beginning, the ‘climax’ or the end of a contact. You need to be at a close distance to perform it, so you have to enter the other person’s intimate space.
It’s a space which you usually feel reluctant to share without consent. A simple illustration of this is the discomfort you feel in the metro when it’s crowded, standing that close to one another for several minutes and being forced to experience a feast of undesirable senses: the unpleasant smells, the heat, feeling a stranger’s breath on your neck… you name it.
However, this invasion of your intimate space is experienced differently during la bise because it is ruled by a set of conventions: it’s brief (if you’re interested and have time ahead of you, you can get information on the number of bises in each region of France at combiendebises.com) and this moment is probably the closest you ever are to anyone -except your partners.
As you all know, there are various ways of greeting people around the world. Gesture which seem completely natural to us are odd to others and vice-versa. For example, in countries like Japan, people would rather bow each other than to have any physical contact.
If we consider human beings as animals, with surviving primary instincts, societies who do la bise or hug each other and who keep the habit of touching each other regularly could use it as a way to protect themselves and be immunized against certain forms of passion. Desacralizing the act of touching shows that they can dominate their desire. Basically, it could be considered as a catharsis. This psychological interpretation however debatable is noteworthy for it’s taken seriously by many sociologists.
What needs to be highlighted is that what is supposedly spontaneous is actually very ritualized. Faire la bise depends on your degree of connection with the other person. We shall underline that it is a much gender-biased practice. It seems like women are systematically expected to ‘faire la bise’.
From a man’s perspective, things are different : your level of intimacy with another man must be very high to go from a handshake to ‘la bise’, you have to be relatives or very good friends.
Why is that? We don’t really have an answer, it could simply be generalized sexism.
Another way to put things into perspective is to consider the bise in terms of body functions.
Think about your face for a second : your eyes are for seeing, your nose is for breathing, your ears are for hearing, your mouth is for talking and eating… but what about those cheeks? It’s basically just skin, a blank space that does not serve any particular purpose otherwise. During ‘la bise’ your cheek becomes the epicenter of affection, where all the brief magic happens.
What is also interesting is to observe postures during la bise. It puts people in a position of equality because they necessarily have to face each other. If they are different sizes they will make a physical effort to stand at the same height by bending their backs or up on their toes. On the contrary, kissing somebody on the forehead is putting the person who gives the kiss in a position of superiority, which can be experienced as patronizing.
To conclude and end on a more sentimental note, let us stress that la bise is part of a tradition of gesture as greetings but it’s also a kiss. It can carry a great range of emotions and take us back to an age of innocence in which displaying your affection is fine. Because in the end, who gets more kisses on the cheek than babies and children?
By Vivianah Simon