Published on March 16th, 2015 | by Molly Montgomery1
A brief story about the Bise
“Bonne année! Happy New Year!” In the United States, this seasonal greeting warrants a handshake or a hug, maybe even a wave. In France, on the other hand, it is an occasion to practice a common custom: cheek-kissing, la bise.
Most Americans, even those who have never been to France, know about la bise from movies or from taking French in high school. But it’s a little more complicated than it looks, and it does not always come naturally to Americans who are raised in a culture where cheek-kissing implies intimacy. But for Americans who want to learn, pas de soucis (no worries).
All it takes is practice, and after a few awkward greetings, you’ll be doing la bise like you’ve done it your entire life.
When French people greet each other, most of them exchange kisses on the cheek, once on each side. The name “cheek-kissing” in English is actually deceiving, because the action usually does not involve your lips touching the other person’s cheek. Instead, you lean in, brush cheeks with the other person, while making a subtle kissing noise with your lips. Subtlety is key, you don’t want to sound like you are smacking a fish.
La bise is most common among good friends, and it is used by men and women alike (although some men prefer a handshake when greeting their male friends). But it is not just reserved for friends. In a relaxed, smaller social setting, French people often exchange kisses with every person who arrives, even if that person is just an acquaintance or even a complete stranger. If you’re in a more formal setting, such as at a business meeting, or in a setting with too many people to make cheek-kissing practical, you usually stick to a hand-shake. If you exchange kisses with everyone when you say hello, it is also common to repeat the exchange when you say goodbye. Because this happens when any single person arrives or leaves, you end up touching cheeks quite often while socializing in France.
For Americans unsure of what to do or what cheek to start with, wait for your French friend to lean in and then follow his or her lead. Generally, in my experience, the French start by turning their heads to the right and offering the left cheek. But this can vary by region, so it’s often better to simply wait for the other person’s cue. Usually, the French kiss once on each side, but this also differs from region to region (and from country to country). For example, in Provence, it is common to kiss three times, and in some parts of Paris it is common to kiss four times. There’s even a website, Combiendebises.com, that polls the French on how many kisses are common in their region.
While visiting Geneva, in French-speaking Switzerland, I was caught off guard when greeting friends who live there because it is the custom to kiss on the cheek three times. I was just getting used to doing three. Then, I met a Belgian mutual acquaintance. I had cheek-kissed him once and was turning to the other side, when he awkwardly dived away to avoid my second kiss! It turns out that in Belgium, you only kiss once.
In France, cheek-kissing is not just reserved for saying hello and goodbye, but also serves as a gesture for a number of other social occasions too. When you thank someone for a gift or when you congratulate a friend, you exchange la bise. When you see someone for the first time in the New Year, even if you’re in a situation where you wouldn’t normally kiss (such as work), you cheek-kiss. Basically, any occasion that calls for a hug between friends in the United States translates into la bise in France.
This took me by surprise, because I had not realized the universal usage of la bise. During this past Christmas season, this led to a moment of culture-clash when a friend was thanking me for a gift. I went in for a hug while she was going in for a cheek-kiss and awkwardness ensued.
After a few months of living France, I’ve grown used to la bise as a part of life here. For Americans who still think it is strange, and perhaps not so hygienic, consider this: how do you think the French feel about the number of hugs we give? Isn’t it just as odd that we give full-body squeezes to acquaintances, even strangers? Whether you’re an American who feels a little lost amongst the cheek-kissing frenzy at a French party, or a French person in the U.S. who finds all the hugs a little too touchy-feely, just embrace that sensation of feeling a little uncomfortable, awkward, or out of place. It will pass, with time. But in the meantime, isn’t that what experiencing another culture is all about?