As a Romanian expat “landed” in Brussels, the first thing that really struck me in Belgium was “la bise“. For those who don’t know this French term, “la bise” is the kiss that Belgians do when meeting each other. For an expat, this may be really awkward, not to mention confusing and sometims even a bit … well, offending. The shock of cultural differences, I suppose…
Just imagine: Girls kissing each other. Teachers kissing each other. Students kissing teachers (in less formal situations). Boys kissing each other’s cheeks (that was really shocking for me to see, as in Romania you would never see this happening; for Romanian guys, kissing for the daily greeting would be something “outrageous” and not in line with the local “masculinity codes”…), bosses kissing employees, employees kissing bosses and so on.
You have to kiss!
Just saying “hello” or “good bye” is not enough in Belgium. You also have to kiss. Some kiss by touching their lips on your cheek, others just touch your cheek with their cheek and some will just imitate the kiss by doing a gesture in air which resembles to the real kiss. Sometimes you have to give only one kiss. Other times, two kisses and in some situations even four. I never know what the social codes are in terms of kissing and there is always a sort of surprise: “Oh, there are only two! I was expecting four!” or “Oh, it’s just kissing in the air and hugging, not real kissing and sorry that I actually kissed your cheek and your girlfriend is now upset. Silly me!”.
But what do you do when you don’t feel comfortable with this social kissing?
As an expat, you are expected to embrace the culture of the country of adoption, “y compris la bise”. I have nothing against kissing my friends. In Romania, I used to kiss (on the cheek) my friends – especially girls, when meeting them after long time. With boys, it depends on the occasion and on the type of relationship. A hug sometimes is enough. A kiss is only for a dear friend or for some family members in some special occasions, but not on a daily basis. I wouldn’t kiss my mom every day (she doesn’t do it anyway… maybe it is a fault of the way I had been brought up, who knows…), as I wouldn’t kiss my colleagues at school every day. It would be too intrusive, not too mention all the germs exchanged…
For me, kissing has an intimate side and intimate gestures are not gratuitous and done every day with every acquaintance. Or maybe I have a very romanticised way of seeing things… I am also rather sensitive in terms of my personal space, which probably comes down to the culture I was brought up into. In Romania, we do things differently (or things used to be done diffrently).
Besides, there are some people that you would rather not want to kiss. Whenever this happens to me, I somehow feel that I am acting against my values and my body reacts in a negative way. But the Belgian social norms dictate that you should kiss them… otherwise it is offensive for them. But what about me? What about you? Aren’t these codes offending me/you?
Just shut up and kiss!
If you are planning to stay for a while here in Belgium, as an expat you have to enlarge your personal borders of intimacy and accept this “local kissing practice”. Yeah, accept it, get over it. Even when you need/ have to kiss people that you don’t specifically like or that you don’t consider friends or close enough to be kissed. Imagine, you’ve just met somebody for the first time, but in order to mark this fact, instead of shaking hands and saying “Hi, it is nice to meet you”, you have to kiss that person although he/she is not close to you. And it is even worse, when that person stinks (yeah, it happened to me several times and I am sensitive to smells). In this situation, a handshake (practiced in most of the cultures) would be a fair solution. But no, in Belgium (and in France) you have to kiss. And this is only for the sake of keeping good appearances, receiving social acceptance and avoiding your counterpart feel rejected.
In other words, by allowing this kiss, you open your area of intimacy, you allow somebody in your personal space, thus you accept the one that you meet or greet.
Could accepting random greeting be a solution?
Given that Belgium and especially Brussels is the place where so many cultures merge in, a solution for this “kiss”dilema could be … flexibility and greeting randomly. Belgians could continue to kiss each other as much as they would want to. The expats could choose to shake their hands or just greet verbally, without feeling that they would be offending Belgians. Everyone would have the freedom to choose whoever they would like to kiss and exchange germs with (sorry, I catch colds and throat infections really easily, so it is important!), decide whenever they want to kiss and be kissed and not be threaten at every social gathering by a pair of lips approaching menacingly. Brrrrr.
PS: Even after more than 15 years of living in Belgium, I am not always comfortable with this “greeting kissing”.
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