Five kisses! I’ve had relationships with less contact than that
Nobody likes a limp handshake, obviously; it’s like holding wet lettuce and gives the impression that the limp handshaker has a distinct ambivalence towards meeting you. But a handshake is a handshake; it’s either firm, or limp, or somewhere happily in the middle, and therefore passes without description. How I wish things were that simple in France. I’ve now lived here almost 25% of my life and the ‘greeting’ not only still has me baffled, but actually has me nervous to the extent that I’ll sometimes avoid leaving the house altogether for fear of meeting people.
‘Nuance’ is a French word and could easily have been invented just to describe the sheer range of options open to two people meeting in the street. Is it a kiss? If so: how many? Is it a handshake? A hug? A nod? Cold indifference? I really, even now, have no idea whatsoever. It’s not so much ‘nuance’ as a positive minefield, and the chance of a damaging social faux pas is very real indeed. Just when you think you’ve mastered it, a new rule emerges; like the French language we first moved here, a neighbour’s wife greeted me on the first evening by shaking my hand with such ferocity, I thought she was going to flip me over like a cartoon wrestler. But that was nothing compared to her stare; eye contact is vital in the handshake approach and avoiding it is considered bad manners. She held my gaze like an aggressive heavyweight boxer at a weigh-in, almost daring me to rise to her challenge; less warm greeting, more prelude to an arm-wrestle.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I’m against tactile greetings, far from it, and it’s heartening to see the English becoming a more touchy-feely race. Men are seen to hug in the street in the UK now and I like that; it’s a warmth we’ve possibly not been credited with before. Okay, at times we’re still a bit stiff and awkward about the whole thing, but it’s early days and we’ll get there once we’ve established clear ground rules for the exchange. The French, though, have been at this kind of thing for so long they’ve apparently and – crucially – independently, just started making up their own rules. But whereas they’re relaxed enough as a race to laugh off any awkwardness that may arise, it leaves us English flailing around and blushing like teenagers on a first date. The European Union should take this up in my opinion; never mind standardising fruit and regulating carbon emissions, they should set a legal tariff on kissing greetings. Until then I’ll just keep fumbling about in the dark, which was another greeting that was frowned upon. Ian Moore is a comedian, writer, chutney-maker and mod who lives with his family in the Loire Valley. His latest book is C’est Modnifique!, (£8.99, Summersdale Publishers). ianmoore.info