In late February of 2020, France’s Health Minister Olivier Véran declared that all large gatherings of more than 5,000 people in confined spaces cancelled. So, too, the minister recommended that people not greet each other with la bise, or the common practice of greeting people with an air kiss on the cheek.
Not much later, former Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte asked Italian citizens to “stay apart today to embrace each other more warmly tomorrow.” In practice, this meant putting the bacio sulla guancia, or the Italian cheek kiss, on pause.
Across France and Italy, and also across Spain, the Middle East, Latin America, the Philippines, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Greece, Brazil and the Balkans, cheek kissing is a way of life (or at least a way of greeting others). But in the COVID-era time of elbow bumps and masks, the survival of this custom is, at the very least, a question that’s on people’s minds.
So far, it seems to be a mixed reaction. Post-lockdown hangouts in Italy have involved half measures like greeting friends with chest-to-chest contact but with heads turned away from each other. In France, people have been bumping arms. And of course, some people have really craved the physical contact and are opting to cheek kiss now that they’ve been vaccinated, but not everyone is on the same page in terms of comfort levels.
According to a French colleague at Babbel, many of his friends in France are finding themselves reluctant to engage in la bise when they see each other, even among people with whom the habit was strong. This has led to many awkward missed fist bumps and hand waves.
Now that this perfunctory greeting has come into question, too, a lot of people are finding that they have more space to admit that they never actually really enjoyed the air kiss.
“The pandemic made us realize that we had the choice to do the bise or not,” Karine Boutin, a French psychoanalyst told The Seattle Times. “The question to ask is whether the bise of tomorrow will be the same bise as yesterday, with the same intensity and the same spontaneity. We don’t know if this traumatic memory is here to stay.”
In June 2021, French President Emmanuel Macron almost brought back la bise on an official level when he gave a cheek-to-cheek embrace to two World War II veterans. He did so while wearing a face mask, however.
It’s important to note that la bise, or the cheek kiss in any other part of the world, hasn’t been around forever. In fact, disease outbreaks have shut down similar social customs before. At the time that the Black Death broke out in Europe in the 14th century, people didn’t routinely kiss each other as a form of greeting, but kissing was seen as a way of “shaking hands on it.” The plague essentially ended that practice. It wasn’t until roughly a century ago that the practice was brought back, perhaps indirectly because of a certain “democratization of luxury” that was occurring at the time.
Additionally, la bise was already growing slightly out of favor, at least among male and female colleagues in professional settings, in part due to the #MeToo movement. It is (or at least it was) customary for women to kiss everyone as a form of greeting, regardless of how well they knew each other. Men, however, only kissed other men if they were close friends or family. In the wake of various social movements around sexual harassment and violence in the last few years, some women have expressed their discomfort with this expectation, particularly in hierarchical situations with male bosses.
In cultures where cheek kissing is common, the inference is that close physical contact is part of the social glue that brings people together. The question of whether la bise is here to stay or go is not just a matter of changing social norms, but also, on some level, how a national identity expresses itself.
According to The Seattle Times, half of the respondents polled in a March survey said they would stop using la bise in the future with loved ones, and 78 percent would no longer use it with strangers. Those are significant figures, and that sort of collective reckoning can have all kinds of unforeseen ripple effects down the line.