La bise, or faire la bise, is what the French call the cheek kisses that accompany a friendly greeting or farewell. Where Americans would shake hands or hug, the French use la bise as a polite gesture, an acknowledgement of recognition, affection, and camaraderie. It is a vastly important component of French social etiquette, taught to children alongside “please” and “thank you” and “cover your mouth when you cough.” Different regions of France teach different iterations of la bise: most of the country, including Paris, uses 2 kisses (one on each cheek), while other regions use 3 and even 4!
La bise is a fine art, to be sure. There’s no denying that, as a foreigner coming from a culture where face-to-face contact, let alone a kiss, is reserved for but a lucky few, this social ritual takes some getting used to. It feels too intimate, too familiar. But it is one of many interesting and unique customs that Chris and I must navigate now that we’ve made French friends.
How does la bise work?
The act of administering la bise is really quite easy. Thankfully, although ‘la bise’ translates to ‘the kiss,’ there are no sloppy, wet kisses being planted on people’s faces. Ew. In fact, you typically will not touch your lips to a person’s cheek at all – unless perhaps that person is a very, very, VERY close friend. The only body parts that may touch are your cheeks and, possibly, your hand on the person’s arm for balance – and even these are not requirements.
Lean in to the left of his or her face, graze each other’s right cheeks while kissing the air (yes, you make a delightful kissing sound with your lips!), and then transition to the opposite cheek. Simple.
The hard part (because things are rarely simple) is figuring out when and with whom it is appropriate to faire la bise.
When and with whom do you faire la bise?
For women, it’s a little more straightforward. Typically, in all casual, friendly situations (i.e. not professional), women will faire la bise. This applies to close male friends, close female friends, male and female acquaintances, male and female friends-of-friends – even if you’ve never met before. Always la bise.
For men, it’s a bit more complicated. When greeting women – absolutely faire la bise. French women, when la bise is ignored, interpret this to mean that the man thinks they are ugly, or so I read. But with men, a handshake is much more appropriate – especially with a man you’re meeting for the first time. While some male relationships will eventually cross over the Bise Threshold as friendships deepen, others never do. And often it’s an unspoken agreement that will have to be interpreted by body language. The French Bro Code… or something like that. So, in a hypothetical social situation, say, a birthday party for a buddy, in which there are super close male friends (with whom you faire la bise), close male friends (with whom you do NOT faire la bise), male acquaintances and friends-of-friends (with whom it would be weird to faire la bise), and a gaggle of ladies (with whom you have varying levels of familiarity but, across the board, you faire la bise anyway), you’ve got A LOT to think about! Sorry dudes.
As a foreigner, I have found that it is extremely important to watch the body language of the people I meet. If I am ever in doubt whether la bise is appropriate, I can usually count on the other individual to initiate the greeting or not. Confidence and concentration are key. And of course, I had found that, in the situations that I do not correctly judge (i.e. I move the right instead of the left or, without thinking, I go in for a handshake) people are gracious and forgiving.
A few weeks ago, Chris and I hosted our first dinner guests: a French-Algerian man that Chris had been getting to know through his research and his grown nephew. When they arrived, I graciously welcomed them inside, took their coats, and invited them to sit down. What a lovely host I am! Wrong-o. I had forgotten la bise! Or, avoided it, more like. If I hadn’t already been branded with the scarlet letter ‘A’ (for American) my omission would have probably been taken as rude and cold. But, like the polite, French houseguests that they were, they offered me their housewarming gifts (a bottle of wine and some chocolates) and didn’t say a word about it.
I leave you with this hilarious (albeit explicit) video in which a Brit living in Paris expresses his frustrations with la bise Française. Heh, that about sums it up.
Salut! Et bisou, bisou (kisses, kisses)!