If Shakespeare were French, he would have had a field day with la bise, also known as the “cheek kiss”. To bise or not to bise, that is the question. North Americans may have the half-hug, but French people have la bise.
The “bise etiquette” in France is to greet family, friends, and even acquaintances with a kiss on each cheek as a greeting. Cheek kisses can be made between people of any gender, including two men, depending on how close they are.
However, while there is no doubt when it comes to close family and friends, how close does one have to be? It is a subject filled with nuance, and prone to error. Will the other person be insulted if you don’t offer to offer “la bise” and instead go for a firm handshake? Or on the other hand, will they be shocked and consider it rude?
And I say this as someone who has lived in France for over 10 years. It is a topic that even my French friends give contradictory answers over because, let’s face it, not everyone likes to get that close.
One French mayor went as far as to start arriving late at workplace meetings and other official events, in order to avoid the bises (link in french). Yes, la bise also occurs in the realm of business etiquette, instead of the handshake. Awkward!
So let’s explore all the different variations in bise etiquette, shall we? Allons-y!
Deciding the Number of kisses in France
Beyond assessing whether or not the situation calls for cheek-kisses, there is the added complication of how many kisses. Each region has a “standard” for how many kisses to perform, which is anywhere from 1 to 4.
There is no other way to explain the number of kisses than figuring out where you are located on the following map:
In addition, if you are wondering Switzerland does 3 kisses while Belgium is one bise.
Cheek kisses: which cheek first?
It does not matter which cheek is first, although most people have a habit of the left cheek first.
The bad news, if you are female, is that there is a lot more of les bises required. If one of the two persons in the encounter is female, French etiquette rules suggest that there should be a bise.
Even if you are meeting someone for the first time at an informal occasion such as a party, after the bonjour and greeting introduction, the two individuals will exchange cheek kisses as a hello, as long as one of the two is a woman.
And it doesn’t matter if you are French or not French. I found myself exchanging the bise with a fellow Parisian expat who I was meeting up with in Canada, just because we were both so used to doing so in France.
I should mention however, that I know plenty of French women who quite dislike this etiquette behavior. It is one thing to greet a friend that way, however, many women prefer to keep their own personal space.
So while a man and woman meeting (platonically) will usually exchange la bise, two men who are meeting for the first time will never exchange a “bise”. French Men who are meeting with close friends or family members, on the other hand, will exchange a light cheek-to-cheek air kiss.
This is not considered unusual. It is rather considered on the same level as the half-hug or pat on the back that North Americans exchange when meeting a good friend.
Note: Do not try the half-hug and pat on the back in France. Most French people will be taken quite aback if you try to give them a hug!
In the Office
It is in the workplace that the lines really begin to blur. In traditional French offices, coworkers make it a point greet each other personally.
The new arrival will go to the desk of each person and shake hands with a “Bonjour“, and in the case of a female, will possibly do the bises. (Two men will not do the bises.)
Yes, cheek kisses in the morning with co-workers. The idea is that you spend a large amount of the day with your co-workers and so they are not considered “strangers”.
These days, as more international and anglo-saxon companies set up shop in France, this habit is falling out of trend. However, it is not as uncommon as it sounds.
Government offices and companies with deep French roots still continue the tradition. You can read more French work culture here.
At a Party
Similar rules apply at a party or an apéro get-together. And I mean that in the sense where you may be at an informal event, where you are meeting some of the other guests for the first time.
Each new arrival goes around to every person already present and the introductions are made. A polite handshake between two men, while a woman will exchange la bise.
While leaving, the same ritual will occur during the goodbyes. You could get away with a general wave if there are too many people at the party, but if you spent a good amount of time talking to certain guests, an individual goodbye is considered good form.
With friends and family
In general, all friends and family will do the bise. Aunts, uncles, relatives you haven’t seen in years, will all fall under this category.
Traditional families will even exchange la bise every morning at breakfast, whether they are young or old.
While la bise is certainly not exchanged amongst children at school, if you are attending a party or a French wedding, the same rules apply. At one of the first weddings in France I attended (and I’ve attended plenty!), I was quite surprised to see one 3-year-old who I’d never met before, scrunch up his face while looking at me, expecting the traditional bises.
Yes, French children learn young. The North American in me however, lets this one slide with my own kids. I let them handshake if they feel like it, or even wave hello. (Personal space!)
The Handshake Alternative
Now, if that all sounds too complicated, you can stick to the handshake. As you might be able to tell, even French attitudes are changing about this traditional greeting.
Even before the current health crisis, the handshake was catching on. (French people haven’t quite warmed up to the fist-bump.)
This is especially amongst women who do not care to exchange with people who they may not know. Or even if they do know the person, but not particularly well.
If your parents are French however, I recommend continuing to greet them with la bise!
If you enjoyed about la bise you might enjoy taking the quiz on the different ways to say hello in French. A bientôt!
¹ Featured Image: Farah Photography