You have arrived in France. You go to the boulangerie for a croissant and see two friends bumping into each other in the queue, they kiss each other on the cheek. Later, you’re in a bar. You just want a nice glass of French wine. Every new customer who arrives is kissing other patrons. A man enters. They’re walking up to you. You don’t know this man. Suddenly you are greeting with a warm “Bonjour” and a peck on each cheek. It happened. You sit in stunned silence. It’s too late to react. He has moved on to the next person and the next. He’s a local so he even leans over the counter to kiss the barman! Welcome to France.
This is the tradition of La bise. A common French greeting among friends, family and sometimes strangers and co-workers. France is definitely a contact culture. There is a lot of kissing and hugging involved when you interact with French people, and this can be a little jarring if you’re not used to it. In the UK I was used to a friendly handshake with a co-worker or a hug between friends but never a kiss. In the UK you only kiss close family members, and it is usually when you are a child, and your grandma leans down to plant a big sloppy one on your cheek. However, in France it is seen as a warm friendly greeting that is in no way inappropriate.
The Language of Kissing
There are a lot of ways to talk about kissing in French. That is because there is a big difference between La Bise – kissing as a greeting – and kissing a romantic partner.
Un Bisou – If you want to talk about “a kiss” in general, you would use the word “bisou”. To give someone a kiss is “donner un bisou” or “faire un bisou”. This is when you talk about the action.
Faire La Bise – This is the act of kissing someone as a greeting or when saying goodbye. Usually, two air kisses on each cheek.
S’embrasser – When you talk about a romantic kiss you would use “s’embrasser”. This is a reflexive verb so it has to agree with the subject, that way you know who has been kissing! If two women were kissing, you would say – “Elles se sont embrassées.”
Baiser – “Un baiser” is a more formal, grown-up way of saying kiss. But be careful with this. While the noun means to kiss, as a verb “baiser” is vulgar slang for sex. Literally translating to fuck or screw.
French kiss – In France they do not say French kiss to mean a sensual kiss with tongues. They would say something like “a deep kiss” or “un baiser profonde”. This phrase probably comes from the association in the UK and the states with anything French being sexual or romantic.
How many kisses?
Depending on where you are in France the norm will vary from 1 – 4 kisses. If you stick to the standard 2 kisses, one for each cheek, you should be safe. The majority of the country kiss twice when they greet. No one really knows the significance of kissing more or less than twice. Sometimes it even varies village to village because of some old superstition or because “that’s how monsieur so-and-so did it back in the day”.
When to kiss strangers?
Don’t think that you should be going up to everyone you meet in France and kissing them. For strangers that you pass on the street or in the supermarket a simple “bonjour” will suffice.
It would be very impolite in France not to say “bonjour” at all. In almost every situation. Going into a supermarket, the garage, bakery, walking past someone in the street or when the postman or woman drops off your post.
In my experience, I was first caught off guard in a bar in a small town. As it was a local bar and most people know each other, the assumption is that almost everyone is a local. In this case, a friendly local bar setting, it might be impolite not to faire la bise upon entering. I was greeted by a man I didn’t recognise with la bise and then I turned to my boyfriend and asked who that was. He shrugged and said, “I’ve never seen him before.”
The general rules are; you kiss the following people or in the following situations:
- Close friends
- When everyone else is doing it
- In some workplaces – usually an office setting but be careful and follow the example of others
In recent years men will kiss other men but this is mostly reserved for close friends and family. As a woman you are much more likely to faire la bise with everyone. It is not seen as sexist as it would be rude not to greet a woman in this way.
You are most likely to experience this greeting if you are invited to dinner at a French family’s house. There you will be expected to faire la bise upon arrival – you have to kiss everyone before you can sit down for dinner. And then again when you are saying goodbye at the end of the night. This can be quite a long process if lots of guests arrive one after the other!
How to kiss strangers?
I have been talking a lot about ‘kissing stangers’. Now I hope you are not imagining planting a big smooch on a strangers lips. Or even a big one on their cheek for that matter. Not at all. The act of la bise is more of an air kiss.
You approach one another and tap your cheek against theirs, make a mwa kiss sound and then move to the other cheek and do the same thing. Just a little peck sound. If you actually say, “Mwa!” you will get some very strange looks.
Really, you are moving your face from one side of theirs to the other. Sometimes cheeks don’t even touch and if you are uncomfortable with the entire affair if will suffice just to go through the motion without any kissing really happening.
As a tourist in big cities such as Paris or even smaller tourist towns, you are unlikely to be surprised with this French tradition but if you are I hope you see it for what it is – A sign of friendship, affection and good manners.
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A travel and lifestyle blog. By me, Lydia. I'm based in Brittany, France and I am here to share an honest and informative account of my life here.