Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Pressing the flesh, French style

In a nutshell: This is in praise of the French, who have an endearing habit of touching each other, unlike the tight-arsed Brits.

Given that we are monkeys (or Naked Apes to use Desmond Morris's term) don't you find it odd that we don't touch or groom each other more often?

And when we do, it is usually in a carefully constrained context: hairdresser, the handshake, a touch on the shoulder or elbow, massage - no, not that kind, and so on.

During my student days I came across a very interesting social psychology experiment. The experimenter would leave a coin in a call box and wait until someone came to place a call. Of course they all did what you or I would do; they pocketed it. When they had finished their call, he would approach them and say "I think I may have left a coin there - you didn't see it, did you?". As the question was asked he would either touch them lightly on the elbow, or not. That's all.

So what happened? Turns out that most of those he touched produced the coin willingly; most of those not touched said, in effect, "Sorry, but no". That simple light touch on the elbow turned the interaction into something special where the person did not want to deceive. And get this: when they were told that they had been part of an experiment and asked about their experience of it, none of them could recall being touched!

Cue the delightful French, who unlike the English, still understand the importance of contact. I claim no authority for all French, and all of France, but here in the Dordogne we do press the flesh as follows:
  • I shake hands with my male friends every single day
  • This courtesy extends to, for example, artisans. If I have someone working on the house we will shake hands every single morning when he arrives
  • I shake hands with strangers who turn up
  • I shake hands with women that I do not know well
  • I kiss women that I do know well. In the Dordogne it is once on each cheek. None of your "air kissing". This is proper close friendly contact. (The Parisian woman who lives near here kisses four times - e.g. left, right, left, right; a Belgian does it three. So you do need to know who you are dealing with!)
  • All children (the term enfant seems to cover birth up to about 14), boys or girls, will expect to kiss you if they know you, and manners dictate that they will kiss a stranger during introductions
  • One may, or may not, kiss on parting. It is a matter of context and somehow you learn it
  • I kiss men at moments of great passion (e.g. we win the rugby) or New Year's eve
  • You do not kiss women when first introduced. However, this can be relaxed in certain contexts, such as a group setting where all the others are on kissing terms
  • You progress to kissing by some invisible criterion that I generally get right
  • And very important, at least in this locale, having greeted someone and shaken hands or kissed as case may be, you do not repeat same later in the day. If you try they will remind you that "je t'ai déjà vu".

There are times when the contrast could not be more marked. In my English Pub I would be lucky to get a greeting at all from the landlord, or perhaps "Evening, what will it be?".

At Chez Edith I will be kissed by Barbara the landlady, kissed by each of her two daughters, kissed by Marie behind the bar, kissed by Isabel in the kitchen when she passes through, will shake hands with Stefan the landlord; and that's before further greetings with other clients. And Barbara will definitely kiss you goodbye on your way out.

The effect? Well naturally I can't prove anything, but I do find the French very warm and friendly, great chatterboxes, and always willing to find the time to cement social relationships.

They still have something the English have lost, and the willingness to reach out to each other, physically, is part of it. Long may it last.


The Lehners in France said...

Yuk - it's just not British to slobber over complete strangers. Very unhygenic too - God knows what vile bugs are being passed around.

A manly handshake is ok, but you can keep all your effete dribbling !

We didn't build an empire by snogging Johny Foreigner ...


Ernest de Cugnac said...

That's the last time I snog you then!

Milla said...

another most interesting bit of writing. I do kisses, but find it impossible to guage who will be a 2-er and who a 3-er. But it's not always pleasant. I fear I will press whiskery and powdery kisses on shuddering young in 2 or 3 decades and have long trained myself to be surreptitious with the wiping of cheeks if my co-kisser is a little damp! Thank you for your comments on mine, you are supremely generous.

Absolute Vanilla (& Atyllah) said...

It's an interesting observation and comparison. I'd agree that touch plays a pivotal role in cementing relationships in some way, even the most "casual" ones. There's an intimacy of allowing someone else into your personal space. So, on that note, I send you a hug. Now where does that one fit in! ;-)

Ernest de Cugnac said...

Milla - good points ... I can remember not wanting to kiss at least some of my aunts!

Vanilla - hugs are definitely good, but not part of the French greeting. Hugs back to you!

The Lehners in France said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
LittleBrownDog said...

Goodness, it must be exhausting running a busy hostellry - how on earth do you find time to pour the drinks amids all that snogging? I imagine it probably builds up the immune system, too - a bit like having pets. Are the French less prone to colds perhaps? In my experience they don't seem to snuffle much, however they seem to be forever complaining about having poorly livers and so on - perhaps that's just the effect I have on people.

The Lehners in France said...

Sorry, I deleated my comment because I wanted to add something.

As many of the people you talk of are artisans, hostellry owners or employees their intention is to part you from your money. This done nicely results in a win-win situation, you feel you've been treated well and they get your dosh.

I treated all of my customers well face to face, that doesn't mean I didn't think "arse" as soon as I was out of the door with my order.

I go with the phone box theory rather than an overall national niceness. Debs x sorry we're in France have to add another x

Ernest de Cugnac said...

Little brown dog - actually when the French have colds they do wave you away from the snogging zone!

Debs, xx to you too. What a cynic!! I can't put my finger on it, but the English have lost some of the niceness they had; with the French it may be formal manners, but then that does help as a kind of "glue" in social relations.

The Lehners in France said...

Ernest, that's not "glue" it's "Bave" Debs xx
Word veri Bah Humbug

girl with the mask said...

I'm with Debs Lehner! I am British, and proud! Interesting post though.

Ernest de Cugnac said...

Well GWTM, British you may be, but partial to a bit of Dutch if memory serves. Tempted to invite you to try a little French polish!

KAREN said...

Great post.

I did a piece on one of my blogs recently, about the time I accidentally kissed my sister-in-law on the lips, and how utterly mortified we both were.

Sad really, but probably impossible to change such ingrained behaviour.

Ernest de Cugnac said...

Hi Karen, thanks for dropping by. I tracked down you kissing post. Poor you - I can emphathise! Liked the Pam Ayres poem too. She's very good.

Baino said...

Ah . . I see my pal AV is a visitor . .I think it's just lovely. I live in a country where physical contact is negligible. We stand stoic in lifts terrified of touching one another. I think the French peck on each cheek charming and affectionate. Out here, men are only just beginning to feel comfortable shaking hands with women! Lets face it ..we're chained to the sink and can't toss a snag!
Having said . . much can be gleaned from a handshake!

Ernest de Cugnac said...

Greetings baino - thanks for calling. Wonder if you are ex-South African? Lot's of same headed for Ausie and NZ. Where I am, in the Dordogne, is quite evocative sometimes, of SA. Still have wide open spaces and clear roads!