The French kiss instead of shaking hands. (Oh, was that not what you thought I was going to say?) This has been very difficult to get used to. For years, the natural gesture of meeting someone and shaking their hands, or maybe hugging depending on the situation, has been ingrained in my head.
When I am introduced to someone new, I have had to become very diligent in remembering that the French do the chic, European kiss on both cheeks. Several times.
For non-French (at least the Americans and one British assistant I’ve talked to), it is very awkward. There are clearly wrong and right times to do that. It also depends on if you are a male or female (and who you are greeting). Sometimes people actually kiss you on the cheek. The number of times you kiss also depends on what region you are in. It is une danse très compliqué (a very complicated dance) with ever changing rules…I just cannot figure out the steps.
For example, in Clermont-Ferrand, people tend to kiss two times. In other places, they kiss three times. I was in one of those regions a couple of weeks ago and surprise! Extra kiss. Not that it was a bad thing. You just feel a little stupid when you pull away. (Kind of an “oops, we’re still kissing apparently” moment.)
So, if people couldn’t tell in the few words I would have said to them that I am American, they know when I put out my hand. They are very nice. They will shake my hand. Sometimes they will pull me in for a kiss anyway. Or they will make some joke about being American. Usually, it ends up okay.
When I was an intern in D.C., I worked for the Pan American Health and Education Foundation and we interacted with people from all over the world. So, I had been in business situations where the proper greeting with the air kiss. However, if I shook their hand, it was okay. We were in the US. There was no awkwardness.
Now, worst case scenario. Someone will come up to me and kind of lean in, but not really indicate that we’re going to air kiss and I miss the subtle signal. I only realize that I’ve missed my cue when they back away slightly, tilt their head slightly and give me a slightly confused look. (Even then it often takes me a couple of minutes to fully comprehend what has happened.) Then its like, great, now you think I’m rude, stupid or both and I don’t know the language well enough to explain what just happened and too much time has passed anyway to apologize and now I’m just trying to smile a lot to look friendly and hide my blushing face. This usually happens when I am in a more formal setting or when I see students outside of class and they stop me.
Those days, I just feel like a rude American. So that’s a new challenge for me: learn how not to be rude in France. Challenge accepted.