French Language Blog

How to French Kiss — But Not That Way! Posted by on Feb 6, 2015 in Culture

We aren’t talking about THAT French kiss (that’s une pelle – literally, a shovel. The verb for to French kiss is rouler une pelle [to wrap/roll a shovel]- you can put that image together.), no, we’re going to talk about the art of la bise (kiss). When meeting someone in France, faire la bise is commonplace, but for those who aren’t familiar with these introductory cheek kisses, the act can be confusing and maybe make you feel a little mal à l’aise (uncomfortable). It’s nothing cheeky — it’s just a way to say bonjour!

If you’ve never been to France yet, you should definitely become aware of this custom. It goes further than a simple hello and a handshake (although, that can happen, too). Get used to pressing your cheek against the other person’s cheek and kissing the air. It might sound weird, but there are some generally-accepted guidelines you can follow to make this transition a little easier. Just like with French grammar, though, expect there to be exceptions.

The act itself is simple – as I said earlier, you press your cheek against the other person’s cheek and kiss the air. Puis, vous changez de côté (then you change sides) – pull your head back slightly (just enough not to brush your noses or lips together) and do the same thing with the other cheek. Where you are in France can determine just how many times you kiss – it can be anywhere between 2 and 5. How can you know for sure? The best and safest way is just to go along with whatever the French person is doing.

It can go a little further than this, too – which cheek do you start with? I always lean to the left and press my right cheek first. Some people insist on starting with another cheek. I’ve never run into a problem, but maybe I’m excused because I’m foreign.

So that’s how you do it – how about who you do it with? This mostly depends on your relation with the person and their sex. It’s common to faire la bise with people you know, and even their friends. That means when you go to a French party, be prepared to make a lot of kissy sounds. This surprised me at first; I was used to just giving a communal hello and considering it finished. But that all, of course, depends on the context. Just because you hear “bonjour!” doesn’t mean it’s time to stick your cheek out. You’ll be greeted with a nice hello every time you go into the bakery. A simple bonjour back is sufficient. You’re not going to faire la bise to a new client, either. The kissing is less common in the professional world where the handshake still rules.

Female friends to other female friends always font la bise. Males and females will almost always do the kisses, but if the woman holds her hand out, she wants a handshake, not the kiss. Male and male is a little different. Most guys will just shake hands, but some guys, especially in the south in my experience, will kiss a close friend or family member’s cheek while wrapping their arm around the other person’s back. And of course, everything in this paragraph depends on the person, so nothing is set in stone.

La bise took me a while to get used to. I remember my first time meeting my roommate’s friend in Cannes, she went for la bise and I stuck my hand out for a handshake, so we did both at the same time. It was a bizarre joining of two cultures there, but it didn’t seem to bother her (and I was only embarrassed for a few minutes).

The act is also carrying over into text messages and emails. When writing a friend, it’s pretty accepted to end the message with bise or bisous (both meaning kiss).

So there’s a brief summary of la bise. Just remember, when meeting a French person: pucker up!

How about you? Do you have any interesting bise stories to share? Did you embarrass yourself? Any etiquette tips to add? Write them below in the comments section!

 Bisous, lecteurs (kisses, readers).

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About the Author: Josh Dougherty

Just your typical francophile. If you have any topics you'd like me to discuss, feel free to let me know!