La bise is to France what the handshake is to North America. Except way more confusing.
To faire la bise literally means “to make/do the kiss”, but some people also refer to it as “social suicide”. It’s the name for the way the French greet others by kissing each other’s cheeks. There are many rules though for how to make this work appropriately, and there is a lot of gray area. I’ve started to figure it out, and maybe my observations can speed up the learning curve for anyone else who is going to be visiting or living in France for a short while.
Who Do I Kiss?
The quick answer: Women to men and women; Men to women and sometimes men.
The real answer: All over France, if you are a woman, you can safely kiss any gender and any gender can kiss you. Men do embrace other men, however it is much less common in the north than it is in the south, as well as the older the men get. Apart from gender, it is a yes to family, friends, and surprisingly colleagues, even in business meetings! The only no’s tend to revolve around religious folks, or really brand-new acquaintances. No one can say when the handshakes stop and the kisses begin, but if you have kissed once, you will always kiss that person.
When Do I Kiss?
The quick answer: Whenever you arrive or leave.
The real answer: You kiss every single person you know when you arrive somewhere, and also when you leave. Don’t worry if you are just leaving for a moment, like to go to the bathroom. But if you would normally say hello or goodbye in that situation, you kiss. And you will have to kiss every single person and every single person will have to kiss you. You meet three friends at a bar? They all kiss you, one at a time. Another friend arrives? You all stop your conversation so you can kiss the new arrival. Someone has to leave? You all stop again once more so you can kiss them goodbye. This can be exhausting. If it is a wedding or something, just kiss them upon greeting them – you don’t have to kiss all 500 guests the minute you arrive. Also, sometimes the kiss is a thank you among friends or family, just to through that curve ball in there.
Which Side Do I Start On?
The quick answer: The left…?
The real answer: There is no real rule for this. I see left-starters more often than right-starters in Paris, but in Nice and Marseille they seemed to start on the right more often than on the left. But there are two important things to know here. First, be prepared. If you are meeting with someone, know that they is a good chance that you will need to faire la bise, so do pay attention. The French are usually pretty well-tuned to pick up on cues of where you are headed, and will change their direction accordingly. Secondly, be really clear about your intentions. Give the other person your cheek as you lean in. Otherwise, if you don’t specify which way you are headed and they didn’t pick up on it, you both could lean in the same way and have just turned a cheek kiss into a lip kiss. Oops!
What Exactly Am I Doing?
The quick answer: Kissing the air beside the other person’s cheek.
The real answer: Lean in close to, or touching, your cheek beside theirs. Some touch cheeks, others don’t: again, there is no real rule here (do you see a pattern emerging?). Then kiss the air somewhere between their cheekbone and their ear. Do not actually kiss them. Make a small kissing noise (you are right by their ear after all) as you do so. Then move apart and other to the other cheek if you are doing 2 kisses or more. This motion is very quick – two kisses are done in only a second or two.
How Many Kisses?
The quick answer: Two.
The real answer: There is no real rule for this once again. It is by far the most complicated and confusing part. The issue is that if you give too few, the other person will keep going and if you give too many, the other person will have stopped, and in both cases, there is a bit of awkwardness. Here is a map from a French site that actually exists in order to help make the matter less confusing to the French. Yes, even the French aren’t sure what they are doing sometimes.
Île-de-France (the small gray region surrounded by a sea of lavender near the top) is actually not coloured at all because anything goes in Île-de-France. Home to the capital of Paris, I have seen all sorts of numbers of kisses going on. Personally, I only give two. You can see that most regions are double-kissers, but near the southern coast there are triple-kissers and scattered across the north are the quadruple-kissers. Also, rumour has it that the southern island of Corsica has a good population of quintuple-kissers! (5 times)
Hopefully You Survived!
If you come from a country of handshakes and waving hello, this whole kissing matter may seem a little intense at first. But over time, it gets pretty casual. Besides, if the French can’t even get the whole process sorted out, they’d hardly expect you to be an expert right away. 😉