Greeting French people in France is a complicated matter.
Rather than shaking hands, waving hello or hugging, you lean forward, touch cheeks and kiss the air near the other persons ear while making a light kissing sound with your lips (not your voice).
The act of greeting someone with a kiss like this is called ” Faire La Bise”, pronounced Fair la bees: which literally means “To Kiss”.
Sometimes people refer to it in English as an air kiss or cheek kiss. Either way, it means the same thing and for the rest of this article I will refer to this simply as “Faire la Bise”.
From Childhood: La Bise is practically institutionalized In France
Just as you would encourage your child to say please and thank you, hello and goodbye, French parents in France ALL encourage their children to faire la bise to friends and family both young and old.
I have seen this in action with my own daughter who is five years old at the time of this writing.
When my daughter goes to a friends house, the other parent pushes their child to say hello which in essence means that the parent wants their child to faire la bise. Then again when she leaves, she kisses the other child goodbye.
Recently my daughter had a birthday party and catherine gave each one a kiss to thank them for the gifts and then another kiss, one by one as each child left to go home.
I have gotten so used to this that it just seems second nature now.
The Fine Art of La Bise ( L’art de la bise)
Every morning when I drop my daughter off at school, I see parents en-route to school and in the school hallways.
I stop to kiss some of the parents but not all of them.
I have learned the fine art of greeting someone in France.
The awkward first French Kiss
My ease with la bise was not always so casual. I sweated over it and worried about it and even avoided people because I had no idea how and when to faire la bise.
As time went by and after a lot of observation and questioning, I have learned that there is definitely a fine art to greeting people with la bise in France.
I will explain how to faire la bise so the next time you meet a French person or the next time you spend time in France, you will know exactly what to do and what NOT to do.
**NOTE: Just like there are certain people who would argue with you about proper etiquette, so too are there French people who differ in their opinion of when, where and how to administer la bise.
All of what I explain below is either from personal experience, research and or talking with my French friends here in France.
4 Quick Rules Of Thumb on “How To Faire La Bise”.
you need to know four rules of thumb to Faire la bise; When, Who, How and How many.
Once you know these things, you will no longer struggle about how to greet a French person again.
1- How Do You Faire La Bise?
To faire la bise, you lean in slightly and touch the other persons cheek with your cheek while making a light kissing sound with your lips. Yes, you MUST make that kissing sound.
The sound comes from your lips and not your voice. Blake my husband used to make the sound “MWUAH” “MWUAH” when he did la bise and everyone laughed at him so don’t make that mistake.
There is debate as to which cheek you offer up first but I noticed that people in our town always turn their head to the right so that the first bise lands on their left cheek.
Don’t worry too much about the which cheek to offer first because the French are extremely sensitive to these nuances and movements and can adjust quickly.
Another thing to note is that sometimes it is best to take off your glasses so as to not have an eyewear collision.
2- When exactly are you supposed to “Faire La Bise”?
There are several possible situations of when you should faire la bise. Based on my own personal experience and observations, these apply to both men and women, young and old.
- In a recreational settings and in your spare time.
- When Invited To A Friends House: If you are invited to a friends house, you should always faire la bise on entry. If there are only 2 or 3 people at your friends house this is easy but if you are invited to a large social setting then it can get tricky.
- For small social settings and groups: You have no choice but to go around and and kiss each person individually.
- For larger social settings: You still have to kiss everyone but not all at once. You can faire la bise as you come in contact with each person at the gathering.
- At Work: When you go to work in the morning, you may also have to faire la bise. This is not always true and sometimes a hand shake is good enough but ultimately, once you get to know your colleagues better, you will no doubt have to faire la bise.
- Dropping kids off at school: In my own life, when I walk my daughter to school, if I see a parent whom I am friends with, I will stop to give them the bise. This can be really tricky if you are late because it feels rude to just run by them without giving a kiss.
3- How Many Kisses?
Where we live in the south of France, most people give 2 kisses while In Paris, most people also give 2 kisses but I have heard several people say that they give four kisses in Paris.
Why the difference In Number Of 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.
The above map is a user generated map where French people voted on either 1,2,3,4 or 5 kisses for their region. Even in this user generated map, people differed in their opinion as to how many kisses is the correct amount. The map only shows what the majority voted for in that region.
you can see the user generated map here —http://combiendebises.free.fr/
In my opinion, I think that kissing twice is becoming more and more common even in areas where 4 kisses were once given. Some people speculate that the younger people are leaning more towards 2 kisses while the older generation are hanging on to giving 4 even 5 kisses.
4- Who: Who exactly are you supposed to kiss?
Don’t worry, you don’t need to kiss the bus driver or the bag boy at your local grocery store.
Here are the different type of people and types of relationships where you might consider giving la bise.
- Meeting someone for the first time: If you meet someone for the firs time, you typically Do Not faire la bise. You can simply shake their hand or say hello.
- The level of friendship you have with someone: As your relationship grows into a friendship, at some point you will have to shift from the handshake and start giving your friends la bise.
There is no written rule for when you make the switch to la bise.
One day you can be shaking hands with a person and the next day that same person could be leaning in to kiss you. From then on out, you will have to give la bise to that person.
- Friends of friends: If two friends are introduced by a mutual friend then you can greet that person with la bise. it is not obligatory though. You could always opt for a handshake if you like.
- Family member: Family almost always greets one another with la bise.
- Co-workers and colleagues: if you have a job in France, you most likely will faire la bise with your co-workers. This is not always the case and 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 an 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.
- The social status of the other person: If the other person is a higher social status than you, you should wait for that person to initiate. For instance, I once was introduced to the mayor by a friend. If he had leaned in to kiss my cheeks, I would have leaned in also.
- Age: young people kiss one another a lot. My daughter kisses her friends when she is invited to their house but not in the morning when she goes to school. My son’s who are teenagers also kiss their friends when they see them in a social setting and sometimes at school.
- 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 that.
Before I leave you to practice la bise, you should know that you also have to give la bise when leaving.
Another thing to note is that if you see someone and you fait la bise and that person leaves and comes back, you do not give them another bise unless they are leaving for good.
I know it’ all so confusing isn’t it?
It can seem awkward at first for foreigners to get used to la bise but once you do get used to it, it just becomes second nature. Now I do it without even thinking and without any of that awkward feeling because I know what to do and get plenty of practice everyday.
Watch This Fun Video
Below is a fun video about la bise in France. Please watch and see just how confusing it can be even for the French.