Things about France that surprised me: To Bise Or Not To Bise … That Is The Question!

When we first moved to France, it took us a while to understand who, when and how to exchange greetings. This has of course all been thrown up in the air by COVID. But first, let’s look at the “normal” rules and then look at how we’re adapting those to meet the curent guidelines.

If you are meeting someone that you don’t know, or meeting somebody in a business setting, you should shake their hand. This remains however quite a detached form of greeting and can additionally be used should you want to keep emotional distance from someone.

With friends or acquaintances, or even with family friends you should faire la bise as they say in French. Translated literally this expression means to give a kiss, however it is used mostly in reference to the French custom of kissing each cheek to say hello or goodbye. For many foreigners it can seem odd to exchange kisses, but to the French it’s such a basic social code that people tend to do it automatically, almost without thinking.

Whether it is President Macron welcoming German Chancellor Frau Merkel to a high-profile state meeting or a regular Frenchwoman greeting her friend at a bar, their gesture is fundamentally the same. They pout their mouths, lean in, smacking their lips in a kissing sound as their cheeks touch gently together

This ritual is different for everyone. Men usually font la bise with women, women do so with other women. Some men who are very close friends or from the south would also font la bise with each other but if they do not know each other that well they may shake hands. For example, my beloved is happy to kiss all our female friends but only kisses his dearest male friends.

I understand the number of kisses can vary. Here on the Cote d’Azur we do the classic two which is borne out by the website combiendebises.com where people rate the number of kisses they think they should give and which side of the face to start on according to the department.

These are the basic rules but if you are unsure… faire ce que font les autres (essentially do what everyone else does) then you can’t go wrong.

Going forward

France has lifted lockdown and things are returning towards (more) normal, but the long-standing French tradition of greeting each other with kisses on the cheek may be gone for good.

A recent article in one of France’s top cultural magazines featured a six-page long article entitled “When la bise disappeared.” Other than pointing to how COVID could mean quitting la bise for good, the magazine asked a poignant question:

Do the French know why they kiss?

Turns out, many don’t, and there are even people who dislike the direct physical contact with people they don’t know at all or not very well.

The Romans first introduced kissing to the French. They had three words for different types of kisses; saevium for a loving kiss, osculum for a friendly or religious kiss and basium, for a polite kiss. It’s the latter kiss which translated into la bise in French.

In the Middle Ages, kissing someone was the “ultimate symbol of a social contract between a lord and his vassal,” according to a long-read on the French news website France Info titled “after the crisis, the end of la bise?” Tracing the roots of the cheek-kiss, the article suggests that la bise has come and gone throughout history – notably taking long breaks after pandemics like the Black Plague.

The bourgeoisie, however, still felt it a bit common and it took until the mid 20th century for the entire cross-section of French society to kiss each other again.

So if we can’t kiss or shake hands, what can we do?

Luckily, there are a few alternatives, such as:

1. Bump elbows, known as the “Ebola handshake”

2. Le “footshake”, bumping feet

3. Remain “zen” in the face of the virus, with a namasté or a wai

Take inspiration from our Indian or Thai friends and use the salutation used to say hello and goodbye in India, Nepal, Thailand and across Southeast Asia. Join your palms with extended fingers in front of your chest and bend slightly at the waist. Lack of contact guaranteed.

4. Looking one another in the eye

5. A nod and a smile

6. The Vulcan Greeting from Star Trek

6. A military style salute

7. Placing palm of right hand across the heart

8. Invent your own greeting

Which one gets your vote?

53 thoughts on “Things about France that surprised me: To Bise Or Not To Bise … That Is The Question!

  1. ah very interesting subject, well as French even before coming to live in France, married to a French women of 2 brothers and 3 sisters, the rules are simple. We shake hands with all those we interwined on a first basis not just automatically. The small kiss or bise is used when the women tells you its ok to do so, the men never ask. Simple and you will be ok all over France. Oh indeed in the South some men kiss but not me ::)

    Liked by 3 people

  2. The phrase” Ultimate symbol of social contract” to describe kissing really caught my fancy. A very interesting essay on the good old days of touching people in greeting. Thank you. All my best to you. Stay safe.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Well observed and well documented. I have noticed a change over time as I come to France regularly but I do not live permanently. In the last ten years, men have tended to kiss more, even between ministers, even in front of the camera. In the offices, every morning and sometimes every evening, women kiss almost everyone, in addition to the 35-hour week, there is not much time left for work. And the men are starting to do the same, but on a smaller scale. Maybe next time you can introduce us to the ‘baise main’, another French tradition. Thanks for the post.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’d say nod and a smile but no one sees that behind my mask! Elbow bump has been the most common. Funny story NYers kiss on one cheek. So in moving to Italy I have to be careful because Italians kiss both and it’s the opposite one from New Yorkers first. So I’m constantly almost kissing Italians before making a last minute move to the right side! Although not since COVID. Elbow bumps all around.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Absolutely interesting perspective and extremely informative. It is fantastic to have a look at the French culture in this way from someone who has been living there. I have seen the “faire la bise” being done over the years from as early as I can recall, and never fully understood as much about it as I know now from reading you insight on it, or even knew that it had a name lol

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve wondered the same about our age-old customs of handshaking, the French bise, and the more recent Obama hug. These days, Namaste works for me, or I’ve been circling my arms in front of me, looking my friend in the eye and saying, “Virtual hug!” 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Probably 8…invent your own as suited. In Australia it’s always been hugs for family & friends, some one cheek kisses. Hand shakes for new and business meetings. I miss all the hugs, right now in COVID a smile and wave (some elbows).

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’ve been elbow bumping but I would’ve preferred if Le Footshake was more popular (actual adherence to the 1.5m). I’ve always appreciated la bise as I think it’s nice to spend time greeting and savour the moment.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. In the Netherlands it’s three with friends and family. You can imagine how awkward it gets when we kiss foreign friends, and keep on kissing once they’re done with there regular one or two 🙂 It’s in our muscle system, we do it without thinking indeed. Unless corona times… I mime kissing now, at a safe distance. It feels weird….

    Liked by 1 person

  10. This was a very interesting read. I hope the bise culture will continue.
    As for greetings, I use #1, #4 and #5. I am not sure yet if I miss shaking hands (very popular greeting here before Corona). I am curious how and if greeting each other will chance permanently.

    Liked by 1 person

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