16 May 2011


In the Chicago Tribune last Sunday, there was an article on the social kiss and how it's gaining popularity here in America, perhaps because we want to be more European or fancy or because we've finally gotten over our American isolationism.

I would argue that the social kiss is gaining popularity on the coasts and that it's slowly making its way to the Midwest, just as many things, including fashion, eventually reach us here in the middle of the country—years after the trend started.

I have anecdotal evidence for my coast-to-the-Midwest kiss theory: my company has an office in New Jersey, and I come out here every few months or so to sit in a conference room and bond with my co-workers, people I usually talk to via conference calls and Outlook.

It never fails that I get kissed when I come to New Jersey, which could, perhaps, be a good slogan for the state. Who wouldn't want to come to New Jersey with a slogan like that? In my view, it'd make more sense than the Garden State, and it would go far in dispelling that view that New Jersey is simply the armpit of New York City.

But back to the kiss: my New Jersey co-workers kiss me when I come through the door, something my Illinois co-workers never do and I don't know how long we'd have to work together before they did that.

Granted, I don't know if these NJ people kiss each other every day—how very French that would be—but clearly these Coast people are more okay with the social kiss than this girl from Iowa.

Unless I'm pretending to be the girl from France—then the social kiss, the double cheek kiss thing, makes me feel at home.

I wrote this thing when I lived in France and taught English at a French high school. In it, I was trying to figure out social conventions but also thinking about how important touch is—how important it is to be touched on a daily basis.

What's that statistic? That to be healthy, you should be touched 12 times a day, or maybe it's 37, although that seems like a lot.

Statistics aside, it's important to be connected to others and when the social kiss makes it way to the Midwest, I will be ready, thanks to France.


Kiss kiss. So light, so quick, so not enough for me.

Here in France, as in so many other European countries, the double cheek kiss is de rigeur.

When you first meet someone, kiss kiss. When you run into a friend in the street, kiss kiss. When you go to someone’s house for a 3 hour dinner, kiss kiss.

Goodbye is a kiss. Hello is a kiss. Thank you is a kiss. With all this kissing practice, no wonder the French have a whole kind of kissing named after them.

Bisous, the double cheek kiss thing, are an expected routine here, but for me, they still feel, paradoxically, both too personal and not personal enough.

They burst my personal space, physically and mentally, because I don’t often kiss people back home, and here, I’m kissing co-workers, people I meet at church, little kids, everybody.

The French kiss like we shake hands, which is what makes bisous not personal enough: it’s just something that has to be done. Most people don’t even really kiss but do that high society princess air kiss. “Oh dahling, how perfectly perfect to see you! Mwah, mwah.”

Bisous are more mashing together cheeks than actually kissing, and for all the noise they make and for how close they make me get to people I barely know, I wish I could feel the care in them.

As I’ve found my life in France, I’ve come to accept and even appreciate bisous, in the same way that I appreciate for his very Frenchness the waiter who won’t bring the bill until I force him to notice my impatience by tripping him.

C’est la vie en France, and France and all its particular Frenchness are now part of me.

I’ve come to realize that there are different levels of bisous: the cheek mashing for slight acquaintances, for example.

The more you know each other, though, the more you’re actually kissing cheeks and not symbolically the air around the ear.

There are such barely noticeable shades of intimacy in if they touch your shoulder while leaning in or if they smile. It can be like trying to explain the difference between brick red and fire engine red – only noticeable if you really want to notice – and I do want to notice.

Noticing will give me reasons for why France won’t let go of me, even when I’ve seen how life here isn’t any easier just because of its otherness.

Bisous were so foreign to me when I first came to live in France, but I found that simply bisous-ing made me feel more French and less foreign here. I often feel just out of place and just misunderstood, and I quickly learned in loneliness what sticking out as Not One of Them does to your self-esteem and self-confidence. It took me longer to learn what defining yourself without a common culture and with pre-conceived notions to fight does for who you are and who you want to be.

Who I am right now is a displaced American aware of the distance of that displacement. That’s neither good nor bad but just a numbered reality: I am thousands of miles from home.

It was my choice to leave that predictable Midwestern home; I know that as well as I know that life and lives didn’t refuse to move on when I moved out of the country.

As I learned to accept France and its Frenchness, I learned to let go of selfish desires – that my absence would hurt and not heal, that I’d wrestle foreign challenges and win easily by living an enviable life, that I’d be so loved that everyone would want to keep me at arm’s length.

“At arm’s length” usually has a negative connotation, like you’re trying to keep someone out. Now I think of it as trying to hold someone in and keeping them within a hug’s reach, and I think like that because I’m so rarely held like that.

Oh, I miss other parts of American culture, like how stores are open on Sundays and how you can charge anything, but it’s missing the hugs of my friends and family that emotionally unravels me at times.

Overdramatic? Maybe. Over-analytical? Of course, but adapting to another me in another culture uproots me enough that I spin around grasping for any normalcy or comparison and end up confused about what’s normal.

It scares me, for example, that when I was back in Iowa over Christmas, I expected people to bisous. Waiting in a café, I watched friends meet and when they hugged or simply smiled, I felt a twinge of missing the bisous which have become routine for me.

But back here, I miss hugs because squeezed so tight is how I feel loved, not in the mostly fleeting formalities of kiss kiss. My arms at times ache to hold something other than that day’s little worries and joys.

When I tried to explain to a French friend what my arms felt – weakly alone – she smiled as if she wanted to understand. Then she bisous-ed me and sent me on my way, bucked up for a French day in the French way. Kiss kiss.


  1. Blade's parents threw us an engagement party in California, and Hollywood people kisskiss, too. I wasn't sure what to do with it.

  2. Wonderful writing, as usual. I loved how you just slipped this in there: even when I’ve seen how life here isn’t any easier just because of its otherness. What an amazing insight! Remind me to give you a hug and a kiss the next time I see you.



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