Sunday, January 15, 2017

Bisous Anxiety

I would like to share with you a new condition which I have diagnosed myself with.  I believe this may be a unique case, so for those of you interested in the field of psychiatry and mental health, this could in fact be a publishable case report.  My name is Greg, and I have bisous anxiety.

We are almost halfway through our 10 months of language school in Albertville France.  For those of you who are unaware, the French have a greeting which involves a kiss on each cheek.  This is not something you do in formal or professional settings, but rather takes place on a regular basis among friends and family.  It is a beautiful custom, and the French do it with complete ease.  Sadly, I have been here for 5 months, and I am still struggling with knowing exactly how and when to use this greeting.

I am not a germaphobe, so please don’t confuse my malady with that (you can’t really be a germaphobe and function in a place like Kibuye).  My anxiety revolves more around my fear of kissing someone I am not supposed to kiss, or not kissing someone I should kiss. Or doing it all wrong.  I am awkward.  I am an American.  

The problem starts with who to kiss.  “La bise” is not just between men and women.  After two men become friends, it is common for them to kiss as well.  But how well do you have to get to know a dude before you go in for a smooch?  And even with women, I just don’t know how well I am supposed to be acquainted with someone before we “faire la bise”.  Often I just stand there like a deer in headlights, like a frightened turtle … just waiting, trying to anticipate their next move.  

I also can’t seem to remember which cheek I am supposed to kiss first.  This has led to a few especially awkward moments with certain men at our church who I ALMOST ended up kissing right on the lips.  I am awkward.  I am an American.

In addition, I still don’t know exactly what I am supposed to do with my hands.  Do I wrap them around the other person, do I keep them at my sides?  For the love of God … what do I do with my hands!  

To make matters more complicated, I was recently informed that the number of kisses changes depending on which region of France you are in.  Which means, I can never leave Albertville again.  

Unfortunately, although greetings in Burundi are different, they are no less complicated.  After several months in Burundi, someone explained to me that when two men greet each other, it is common for them to grab their arm.  The level at which you grab their arm (eg. wrist, forearm, elbow) conveys to the other person your understanding of their social status and your respect for them.  Pretty sure I was doing this backwards for several months after our arrival, thus offending those I met in the highest positions of authority. It would probably be best if the team keeps me away from visiting dignitaries.  

It became clear to me a few years ago that one of the keys to thriving as a cross-cultural missionary is being willing to embrace those awkward moments, and even to laugh at yourself afterwards.  If not, you are apt to become paralyzed with fear and insecurity.

And so, I will leave our house today, and I may even kiss someone I am not supposed to kiss.  And if the next time you see me awkwardly looking at your cheeks or drawing near to you and then pulling back or if I seem paralyzed with confusion and indecision, please give me some grace. My name is Greg Sund.  I am awkward.  I am American, and I am a recovering bisous anxiety victim.