From Childhood: La Bise is practically institutionalized In France
Cheek kissing in France is serious business. Just as you would encourage your child to say hello or goodbye, French parents across France encourage their children to “air kiss” aka “cheek kiss”, referred to in French as “Faire la bise” (pronounced Fair la bees).
The Fine Art of La Bise ( L’art de la bise)
When I first arrived in France, I had no friends. Everyone was either an acquaintance or a complete stranger so greeting someone with a simple hello, a wave or a handshake was just fine.
For about 10 months this is how we greeted people never having to “Faire la bise”. That all changed when we moved to a small French town and started making friends.
People started inviting us to their homes. We often saw people we knew at the local market buying fresh produce or in the morning on our way to take our daughter to school. We were becoming part of the community I guess you could say.
My first bise: My First Kiss
One day someone we knew saw us on the street only this time instead of a nod and a hello, she leaned in to give me a cheek kiss.
It was nerve-wracking and it felt ridiculous to me. Although I had seen hundreds of people greet each other with a cheek kiss, I had no idea how or when to properly give a cheek kiss. How many do I give? Which cheek do you start with, the left or the right? Do you have to make that kissing sound when you cheek kiss? And so many more questions.
Luckily I had amazing French friends who I was eventually comfortable enough to ask my burning air cheek questions. The answers I got were varied depending on who I asked but in general, there are some best practices that most French people follow.
**NOTE: All of what I explain below is either from personal experience, research or advice given to me by my French friends here in France.
Rules and best practices on “How To Faire La Bise”.
As I mentioned before, when I asked my friends about “The Rules” for the air kiss, people gave me varying answers as to when, with who and how to faire la bise but in general there was enough overlap to come up with some general best practices for you to be faire la bise like a pro.
You might be interested in reading: How Not To Be Miserable When You Move To France! Avoiding Culture Shock!
1- French Etiquette- How do you faire la bise?
To faire la bise, you lean in and touch the other person’s cheek with your cheek while puckering your lips and making a light kissing sound with your lips. (Never touch your lips to their cheek). And yes, you MUST make that kissing sound with your lips.
The sound comes from your lips and not your voice. My husband used to make the “MWUAH” “MWUAH” sound with each kiss but people snickered at this so we learned early on not to do that. Some people also put their right or left hand on the other person’s shoulder as they lean into cheek kiss.
2-Which cheek- left or right?
There is debate as to which cheek you offer up first, your right or your left. Don’t worry too much about which cheek to offer first because the French are extremely sensitive to these nuances and movements and can adjust quickly.
By observing my friends, I noticed that many of them tend to turn their head to the left so that the first bise lands on the right cheek but not always so just go with the flow.
Take off your glasses or hat
Another thing to note is that sometimes it’s best to take off your glasses otherwise you could have an eye-wear collision. I’ve also seen some people take their hat off to faire la bise.
3- How Many Kisses?
In Provence, my friends give me 2 cheek kisses but in Montpellier, my friends give me 3 kisses.
The region you live in France will determine how many kisses to administer for la bise however even by region there are discrepancies. It all depends on who you talk to. For instance, even though most of my friends in Provence give 2 kisses, there are some people in the region who give 3 cheek kisses. In Paris, most people give 2 kisses also but there are some people who give as many 5 cheek kisses.
Don’t worry if this sounds confusing because even the French get confused. There is even a website devoted to gathering user feedback about whether they give 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 kisses –www.combiendebises.free.fr/. The websites name literally translates to “How many kisses”.
Some people speculate that younger people are leaning more towards 2 kisses while the older generation is hanging on to giving 4 even 5 kisses.
I have yet to meet someone who gives 4 or 5 kisses but then again, I live in the south where 2 and 3 kisses prevail.
4- When and with whom should you faire la bise?
The level of friendship and type of relationship you have with someone usually determines whether you will or should faire la bise. For example, you would not cheek kiss your bank rep or even the headmistress at your child’s school. Instead, you will politely say “bonjour” possibly followed with a handshake depending on who you are saying hello to. No handshake to bus drivers or store clerks is necessary.
Here are a few different types of relationship situations where you might consider giving la bise.
- Friends and acquaintances: As your relationship grows into a friendship, at some point you will shift from saying hello or a handshake and start giving your friends la bise. One day you can be saying hello or shaking hands and the next day that same person could be leaning in to kiss you. From then on out, you will always faire la bise with that person out of politeness. There really is no written rule for when you make the transition, it just happens. In the beginning, my friends were the ones to initiate the first bise but now that I understand the nuances, I sometimes initiate the first bise with new friends.
- Family members: Family almost always greet one another with la bise but the bise you give to a family member might be a little more intense or more familiar. Kind of like how you might hug your kid a little tighter than a friend if that makes sense. Also, many families give cheek kiss first thing in the morning and then again at night before going to bed.
- Co-workers and colleagues: If you have a job in France, you may eventually end up cheek kissing your co-workers. This is not always the case though. It depends on the working relationship you have with that person. For instance, you won’t give everyone at the office la bise. Just the ones you see on a habitual basis that you might even consider friends. You will not, however, give your boss la bise unless he or she leans in first to give you la bise. Then there is the issue of gender. It’s customary for women to greet men and women with a kiss on each cheek. While men might kiss close male friends, they generally shake hands with male colleagues.
- The social status of the other person: If the other person is a higher social status than you, wait for that person to initiate. I once was introduced to the mayor. If he had leaned in to kiss my cheeks, I would have leaned in also but I would never initiate in that case.
- Age: young people in primary school generally don’t greet one another with a kiss however in my experience, parents encourage or push their kids to faire la bise with other kids when invited to their house. Teenagers are a different story. My son’s friends all greet one another with la bise just as adults do.
- Men: Yes even men greet one another with la bise but not quite nearly as often as it happens between two women or a woman and a man. For instance, my husband does not feel comfortable with la bise so he just offers his hand to other men and that is perfectly acceptable.
5-Special circumstances where you may kiss complete strangers
As I mentioned before, in most cases you only do la bise with friends or people you know well enough to faire la bise but there are exceptions where it is considered “la politesse” to faire la bise even when you don’t know the other person.
Friends of friends: If two friends are introduced to one another by a mutual friend then you can greet that other person with la bise. It’s not obligatory though. You could always opt for a handshake but don’t be surprised if the other person leans in for a cheek kiss. Which brings me to social situations where you are invited to a friends social gathering but don’t know everyone at the event. Do you kiss them too? Yes, you might do since they are your friend’s friends. See below for further explanation.
- When Invited To A Friends House: If you’re invited to a friends house, you usually faire la bise on entry. If there are other people in the house, you typically faire la bise with them also even if you do not know them or are meeting them for the first time. It’s acceptable to shake hands also but usually, if someone invites you to their house this could mean that you should transition to La bise.
- Kiss everyone at a small social setting and group: If you’re invited to a small house party with a dozen or so people, the group is small enough where you can go around giving La bise and while introducing yourself by name.
- Kissing everyone at a larger social setting: If you are invited to a larger even where there are say 20 or more people where it’s impossible to greet everyone at once, you simply faire la bise as you come in contact with each person at the gathering.
6-Other Nuances about la bise
We talked about greeting someone with a cheek kiss but I failed to mention that if you are on kissing terms with someone, you also give la bise when leaving. For example, if you are at a person’s house, you give la bise upon entering and to everyone in the house and then again when you leave to say goodbye.
If you run into a friend on the street, you would typically stop and faire la bise and continue on your merry way. If you run into them again later on in the day, you do not give another cheek kiss because you already gave them one the first time you ran into them.
At a birthday party, or at least the kid birthday parties I have been too, it’s considered polite for the birthday boy or girl to faire la bise with the other kids as a way of saying thank you for coming and bringing me a gift.
And finally, you can also faire la bise to congratulate someone.
I know it sounds like a lot of rules and can be confusing and awkward at first but you get used to it and before you know it, la bise becomes second nature- kind of.
Watch this video about how confusing it can be even for the French.