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.
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:
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.