Faire La Bise: the fine art of French cheek kiss greeting

Faire La Bise: the fine art of French cheek kiss greeting

In France, greeting your French friends can be a complicated matter for foreigners. Rather than shaking hands, waving hello or hugging, you lean forward, touch cheeks and kiss the air while making a kissing sound with your lips. It’s called “La Bise.” Here is a detailed look at cheek kissing best practices in France- “The fine art of greeting a French person with a kiss“: WHO, WHEN, WHERE, and HOW.

How To Faire La Bise And Greet Like A French Person:

Kissing cheeks to greet someone might sound cliché, but this French custom is no joking matter. 

Kids faire la bise with each other with a little parental encouragement

 Throughout this article, I refer to “cheek kiss,” “la bise,” and “Faire la bise” interchangeably to refer to this type of French greeting.

The Fine Art of La Bise ( L’art de la bise)

Cheek kissing, as a way of greeting other people, is engrained in the French culture and pretty much institutionalized from Childhood In France. 

Just as you would encourage your child to say hello or goodbye or shake hands, parents throughout France encourage their children to “cheek kiss” (not to be confused with an “air kiss”).

This act of greeting someone with a cheek kiss is called “Faire la bise” (pronounced Fair-lah-Bees). “La bise” means kiss in French, but this word applies mainly to cheek kissing. A regular kiss is called un bisous, or un baiser. There are many more ways to say kiss in French.

There’s nothing romantic about la bise. It’s typically the way you greet and say goodbye to family and friends.

There are situations where you can greet friends of friends, acquaintances and even co-workers with a cheek kiss but watch out. There are certain unsaid rules and nuances that can vary by region, person or by situation.

What’s my experience with la bise? Plenty. 

My first bise ( French Kiss Greeting) was terrifying.

When our family moved to France back in 2011, we didn’t know anyone let alone any French people so greeting someone new was easy with a simple “bonjour”, a wave from afar or a firm handshake. That’s the way you greet acquaintances or strangers you come across.

For ten months, we lived our lives, never having to “Faire la bise.”

Photo of La Garde France in the Var
photo courtesy of lagarde83130 on Instagram

Making Friends And Transitioning To La Bise (cheek kissing)

Ten months after moving to Marseille, France, we decided this beautiful city just wasn’t for us, so we moved to La Garde.

La Garde is a charmingly picturesque town in Provence (pictured above). It’s the kind of town you imagine when you think of France. Old ladies carrying baguettes, a medieval church, a decaying castle at the top of a hill. It’s the type of place where everyone seemed to know everyone else.

photo of our family in La Garde France
Family photo was taken in La Garde France (c) Annie Andre

And then there was us!

There aren’t a lot of foreigners in small towns like La Garde. Not like bigger cities that attract large amounts of people from all over the world, which suited us just fine. 

We had a nice routine, and so did our three children who attended three different schools; Kieran was in secondary school, André attended middle school, and Catherine, our youngest, was in preschool. 

Every morning, my husband I got dressed and eagerly walked our daughter to school. It was less than a 5-minute walk, but we lived in the medieval part of the town, where people always seemed to be shuffling around trying to get someplace. 

To get to our daughter’s primary school, we had to walk through Place de la république, a big square that had an outdoor market twice a week. On the market days, we would double back to the market after we dropped off our daughter at school and buy produce, meat, cheese or whatever we needed. It was super convenient, and soon people started recognizing us.

At the market in La Garde France with Ferry and Blake and Alex

We were becoming part of the community and made friends…

We became good friends with one of the vendors who sold plants and flowers. He sells shiitake mushrooms and strawberries now at La Serre du Plan. Pictured above is my husband Blake visiting our friend Ferry’s market stall. Blake has his arm on Ferry’s shoulder. To his right is Ferry’s wife, Alex. 

Sometimes we would cross paths with our neighbours or other parents at that market and stop to chat a while before continuing on our merry way. 

One morning, we saw someone we knew, only this time; instead of a nod and a hello, followed by some light chit chat, she said, “Allez, on se fait la bise!” I smiled to confirm, and she leaned in to give me a cheek kiss.

That first cheek kiss was nerve-wracking. I felt like a ridiculous imposter.

I had seen hundreds of people greet each other with a cheek kiss, so theoretically, I understood how it was done. In practice, it was another story.

I leaned in a little too quickly, with more force than I intended, and my cheek crashed into hers. OOOPS, désolé. 

After that first French cheek kiss greeting, I had so many questions. 

  • How do you know how many cheek kisses to give? Is it by age?
  • Which cheek do you start with, the left or the right?
  • Do you have to make that kissing sound when you cheek kiss?
  • Who initiates the first cheek kiss?
  • And so many more questions.

Adults bend over and give air kisses to kids in France too.

**NOTE:  All of what I explain below is either from personal experience, research or advice given to me by my French friends here in the South of France. 

FRENCH ETIQUETTE: Rules and best practices on “How To Faire La Bise.”

Luckily I have amazing French friends who gladly answered my burning questions about the “RULES” for cheek kissing and greeting other people in France. 

I was surprised to find that many of my friend’s answers regarding la bise varied, and not everyone agreed on la bise rules.

But that’s OK because there was enough overlap to put together some general best practices to faire la bise like a pro.

Here’s everything you need to know, the unsaid rules and general best practices for greeting a French person in France with La Bise.

You might be interested in reading:

How Not To Be Miserable When You Move To France! Avoiding Culture Shock!

How to faire la bise step by step directions on greeting a French person with a French cheek kiss

1) Step by step directions for la bise.

  1. Slowly lean forward, turning your cheek as if you’re offering it to the other person: The other person will do the same.
  2. Lightly touch your cheek to the other person’s cheek. It’s important your cheeks touch!
  3. Pucker your lips slightly
  4. Make a soft kissing sound only with your lips. (not your voice, see note below on what not to do)
  5. *Some people also put their right or left hand on the other person’s shoulder as they lean into a cheek kiss.
  6. *Some people remove eyeglasses or hats: Optional but polite and can avoid poking out an eye.

What not to do: NEVER do this:

  • Never touch your lips to their cheek; it’s cheek to cheek.
  • DO NOT make the MWUAH” sound with your voice that so many anglophone speakers make. The kissing sound is from your lips, not your voice. My husband, to this day, still makes that sound, and people snicker at him. 

 

No, this is NOT how you do "la bise."

No, this is NOT how you do “la bise.”

2) Cheek Kissing: Which cheek- left or right?

There is debate as to which cheek you offer up first. Is it the right cheek or your left cheek

Don’t worry too much about this because French people are receptive to these nuances and movements and adjust quickly.

I did notice that more of my friends turned their heads to the left so that the first bise landed on the right cheek. I said most, not all, so just go with the flow. In Montpellier, where we now live, people seem to offer the left cheek first. 

3) How many cheek kisses: 1, 2, 3, 4 or more?

HOW-MANY-KISSES-faire-la-bise

  • When we lived in Provence, my friends gave me 2 cheek kisses, one on each side.
  • In Paris, most people also give 2 kisses, but I’ve heard some older people still give as many 5 cheek kisses.
  • In Montpellier, 63 km (39 mi) south of our old home in Provence, my friends and I exchange 3 cheek kisses.
  • It can be confusing when someone from one region where 2 cheek kisses are the norm travels to another region where 3 kisses are the norm. This happens to us a lot since we’ve lived in several different regions. Sometimes, you lean in for the third, and that person has already pulled away because they are used to only 2 kisses, but I digress. 

Why the discrepancy in the number of cheek kisses? 

The number of cheek kisses you exchange with someone depends on the region you find yourself in. To make matters even more confusing, there are discrepancies even by region.

Don’t worry if this sounds confusing because even the French get confused. There’s a website devoted to gathering user feedback about whether they give 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 kisses –www.combiendebises.free.fr/. The website’s name translates to “How many kisses.”

Some speculate that younger lean more towards 2 kisses while older generations are 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 should faire la bise.

For example:

You would not cheek-kiss your bank rep or the headmistress at your child’s school. Instead, you will politely say “bonjour,” possibly followed by a handshake depending on who you are saying hello to. No handshake to bus drivers or store clerks is necessary. 

La bise varies by relationship and social situations:

  • Between 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 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.

  • Between family members:

    Families 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. It’s similar to how you might hug your child, mom or best friend a little tighter. Many families also give cheek kisses first thing in the morning and then again at night before bed.

  • Between co-workers and colleagues:

    If you have a job in France, you may eventually end up cheek kissing your co-workers.  This isn’t always the case. It depends on the working relationship you have with that person. For instance, you won’t give everyone at the office la bise—just those you regularly see that you might even consider friends.

    However, you shouldn’t give your boss la bise, even if you regularly see that person, unless they lean 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 male co-workers may kiss close male friends, they generally shake hands with male colleagues. It just depends. 

  • The social status of the other person:

    If the other person has a higher social status than you, wait for that person to initiate. I was introduced to the mayor of La Garde by a friend, and If he had leaned in to kiss my cheek, I would have leaned in also, but I would never initiate in that case.

  • By 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.

  • What about Men?:

    Yes, even men greet one another with la bise but not nearly as often as it happens between two women or a woman and a man.  Usually, men reserve la bise for very close friends and family.

  • It also depends on the region. Where we live, in the south, it’s far more common for men to cheek kiss than it is in the north. There are only two men my husband does la bise with. With every other male, he shakes hands, and this is perfectly acceptable. 
The only 2 men my husband does "la bise with"
These are the only 2 men my husband does “la bise with”

5) Special circumstances where you may kiss a stranger.

As I mentioned before, you only do la bise with friends or people you know well; however, there are exceptions where it’s considered “la politesse” to faire la bise even when you don’t know the other person.

  • Friends of friends:

    If two strangers are introduced to one another by a mutual friend, those two strangers can choose to greet that other person with la bise. It’s not obligatory. You can choose to shake hands, but don’t be surprised if the other person leans in for a cheek kiss, which brings me to social situations.

  • When Invited To A Friends House:

    If a friend invites you to their house, you usually faire la bise on entry. If there are other people in the house, you typically faire la bise with everyone at the party, even if you’re meeting them for the first time. It’s also acceptable to shake hands, but usually, if someone invites you to their house, it’s acceptable to transition to La bise.

  • When invited to a small social gathering or social setting:

    If someone invites you to a small house party with a dozen or so people, the group is small enough where you can go around giving La bise while introducing yourself by name. We do this regularly, even if people are seated around a diner table. You make your way around the table by saying “bonjour” and saying your name if you don’t know that person. They will do the same.

  • At larger social settings:

    Suppose you’re invited to a larger gathering, say 25 or more people, or where it’s impossible to greet everyone at once because they’re spread out throughout the house. In that case, it’s acceptable to faire la bise as you come in contact with each person at the gathering, but not necessary. 

6) Other situations and nuances about la bise

We talked about greeting someone with a cheek kiss, but I failed to mention that you also give la bise when leaving if you are on kissing terms with someone.

For example:

If you are at a person’s house, you do 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 in the day, you do not give them another cheek kiss because you already gave them one the first time you ran into them.

  • At a birthday party:

    I’ve been to a lot of children’s birthday parties in France. After opening the Gifts, the birthday boy or girl usually gives “la bise” to the other children. It’s a way of saying thank you for coming and bringing me a gift.

  • To congratulate someone:

    You can also faire la bise to congratulate someone for anything that seems “bise” worthy: a job promotion, for a milestone, birthday, etc. 

  • On New Year’s eve, at the stroke of midnight.

    At the stroke of midnight, everyone goes around wishing one another “Bonne Année” (happy new year) followed by la bise.

You should read:

15 Fabulous French New Years’ Eve Traditions In France.

7) How to avoid la bise:

The art of la bise may sound confusing, but it gets easier and will feel like second nature to you with a bit of practice. When I return home to see my family in Montreal, where la bise is not regularly practiced, it feels strange not to faire la bise. 

If you really don’t want to “faire la bise” with someone, it’s simple. Offer your hand for a handshake before the other person has a chance to lean in for la bise. It sets a precedence and a signal to the other person. And it’s perfectly fine to do that. 

If you’re interested in fun fact about French culture, you should read:

50 Crazy Interesting Facts About France That’ll Blow Your Mind

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