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Smoked Meat Diaries #3: The Double-Cheek Kiss

Posted by Will / April 7, 2009

20090406-prairiedogs.jpgHow could no one tell me about the Double-Cheek Kiss? Growing up in Western Canada where people are very cautious about respecting personal space, I simply wasn't prepared for all the kissing. I swear, the signs greeting people as they enter Quebec should read: "Bienvenue à Québec - get ready for kisses!"

It didn't take long to learn that when Montrealers greet each other socially, they give each other a double-kiss wherein they kiss each others' cheeks once on one side of the face and again on the other side. This process is again repeated when saying goodbye. How am I only learning about this now? Growing up, my social studies teachers were too busy teaching me about useless Quebec trivia like who won the Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the name of Jacques Cartier's ship. They somehow failed to tell me about the most common social convention in Quebec. Knowing everything about the history of Quebec while not knowing about the "double-kiss-hello/goodbye" is totally useless. It's like being the world's greatest mathematician who hasn't heard of the number 7.

For me, getting up into someone else's personal space before knowing them is altogether foreign. I was wholly unprepared for my first double-kiss-hello. I was being introduced to a friend of La Belle Fille and suddenly I was being bombarded by lips. As I recall I stumbled backwards while shouting, "Hey! My girlfriend is standing right there, you tart!" Smooth. I've since learned that there are many subtleties to the double-kiss-hello. La Belle Fille tells me that for people you don't know too well, your lips should not even make contact with the cheek and you should simply kiss the air slightly beside the skin ("So you're saying I should NOT have made out with your aunt?"). Also, awareness of concurrent body contact is very important because appropriate arm-to-torso touching is directly proportional to level of familiarity. It's a highly complex exchange between two people. I'll admit I still get a little anxious when a social gathering is coming to a close because I know I'll have a series of these awkward exchanges where I'm hyper-attuned to the proximity of my lips to cheek-skin and I'm left wondering whether 3/8 of an inch from the ear is an appropriate spot to kiss for the amount of social contact I've had with Person X. Heck, I'm not even sure which side you're supposed to start on - left cheek, right cheek? Seriously, that's another thing to add to the welcome signs - "Bienvenue à Québec - prepare for kisses! Start on the left" (though that could cause some serious traffic incidents).
20090406-bienvenue.JPGI think I came up with the perfect way to describe what it is like to administer a double-kiss-hello as someone new to Quebec: It is exactly as if someone you kind of know came up to you on the street while they were eating a bologna sandwich and they handed it to you for a few moments.

How is that even remotely similar, you might ask? Because the same sort of thoughts and feelings of discomfort would arise in both scenarios. Imagine what would go through your head if such a scenario presented itself. You'd think - "What's going on here? What do I do with this sandwich? Is she offering me a bite? Because I don't think I want a bite. I'm not even sure I like bologna. And what if she put butter on the bread? I hate it when people do that to sandwiches. Butter doesn't belong on sandwiches. You should only put mayonnaise or mustard as a spread on a sandwich. If I'm not going to take a bite, I suppose I should be careful not to handle it too much if she's going to continue eating it. I'm going to hold it using only the tips of my fingers so as to not get too many germs on it. But now it looks like I'm holding a dirty diaper or something and it probably looks like I'm disgusted by her sandwich. Am I offending her? Should I take a bite to be polite?" And so on. You see? Now go back and replace all references to sandwiches, bologna, and condiments to cheeks and kisses. It's the perfect analogy.

On the bright side, such ignorance of social norms can only lead to more amusing anecdotes. If this double-kiss business is any indication, there's plenty more social awkwardness to come. But that's okay, we all need to laugh and have a good time - even if it's at our own expense.

Relevant song: "A Kiss for Luck" by Ron Sexsmith:
Kiss for luck, that's enough to keep me holding on/ For a push will always come to shove as the darkness before the dawn

Photo credits go to Picassa user Edgar, and Raymond Gehman of National Geographic.



Margot / June 4, 2009 at 10:08 am
Comments from this post in an earlier incarnation:

As a Quebecer, I don't always "double-kiss". I find this is something that should be done with someone you know at least a little. I would not do it to a complete stranger. I have to have some kind of relationship (albeit a thin one) with the kissee :) But that's ME.
My in-laws being from Vancouver, my double-kissing never fails to impress the ladies and friends from Western Canada. I've never been double-kissed turned down :)
Posted by: brem at April 7, 2009 10:35 AM

ah man. now i'm overthinking my double-kiss'es... which cheek first?
Posted by: jesus at April 7, 2009 7:54 PM

Do not get the metaphor and the actual thing confused. It's totally inappropriate to take a bite of one's cheek and/or ear while doing the double kiss dance.
Posted by: Sarah Brideau at April 8, 2009 10:40 AM

what I find most annoying about the double cheek kiss is the ridiculous double standard. Men do not give the double cheek kiss to each other, but it's expected that women have to do it with women as well as with men. Though I have witnessed gay men double cheek kiss each other -- and then revert to hand shaking for straight men. It's ridiculous.
Posted by: carrie at April 9, 2009 1:51 AM

The double-kiss is a remarkably effective transmitter of the common cold and other bacteria. Let's let this outdated practice slide.
Posted by: anon at April 16, 2009 4:50 PM

Come to that anon, so is hand-shaking. Perhaps the Vulcan 'live long and prosper' gesture should be adopted.
Posted by: Duane at April 19, 2009 3:01 PM

I second Brem, most Quebecois will only cheek kiss friends. Sometimes, they will kiss good friends of close friends. Other than that, regular first time meetings include the usual soft "dead hand" handshake similar to that of the Rest of Canada.
Guys will only kiss each other's cheeks if they are gay. Do not attempt unless you are.
On a linguistic note: "Bienvenue à Québec" means "Welcome to Quebec City" while "Bienvenue au Québec" means "Welcome to Quebec (the province)".
Posted by: anonyme at April 30, 2009 1:29 AM

Way to make a big deal about a custom that happens to be present in many cultures around the world.
Just because it's not a custom where you come from, doesn't make it some sort of unique Quebec thing. Whoop-dee-friggin' do! :)
Posted by: m at May 8, 2009 12:10 PM

Way to make a big deal out of a custom that is not at all uncommon around the world.
If you go to Europe you'll see this is considered quite normal.
Just because Quebec is the first place where you happened to have encountered this practice doesn't make it unique or special here.
Indeed, if I grew up under a rock, I would be surprised that Quebecers use, say, handshakes. But imagine how silly it would sound if I wrote a whole article about it and joked that the sign should read "Welcome to Quebec: get ready for handshakes!"
Posted by: m at May 8, 2009 12:20 PM

Dear m, thank you for your constructive criticism. And thanks for writing it twice - your elaborated feedback is particularly insightful. I invite you to write more anonymous feedback after all of my articles about how I have not accurately depicted my own personal experiences as someone new to Quebec. With your help, maybe I'll be able to write something that's really pedestrian.
Your favourite writer,
Will Shead
Posted by: Will Shead at May 8, 2009 12:53 PM
jen / September 12, 2009 at 11:31 pm
i typed in 'quebec kiss on the cheek' into google and this blog came up. which is excellent, because i'm new to quebec, from western canada, and entirely new to this phenomenon too! (hence the reason i was googling it.) it happened to me for the first time yesterday and i thought, 'is this guy trying to kiss me right in front of his girlfriend!?' i succeeding in making the moment even more awkward as i dodged the kiss in favor of a weird sort of hug. and you have ensured many more awkward moments as i will now be pondering some of the things you brought up here. (what side to go to first?!)
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