In China, greetings are usually done while maintaining physical distance and in the US, a handshake might evolve into a hug or a fist-pound. However, tourists visiting France are always a little confused about how it is done there. While handshake is the norm in formal occasions, « faire la bise » (= kissing cheeks), is the most common way of greeting someone you are familiar with in France. Let’s see how it’s done !
"Faire la bise"
Once you get familiar with French people, forget about shaking hands. At some point in the relationship, « la bise » will become systematic. All you have to do is :
Kiss the air while making a kissing sound with your lips
Repeat on the other side
That last point is very important. You MUST make that kissing sound and it must come from your lips, not your voice! No noise will make the other person uncomfortable, just like a « mwah-mwah » which would be inappropriate.
While « la bise » is practised by men and women across all social classes, don’t get surprised when you see men cheek-kissing when they meet on the streets. Good friends and long-time colleagues might do so, perhaps in a more manly manner, as they would grab each other shoulders at the same time. In families, men will kiss each other's cheeks in most of the cases, while in very traditional ones, handshake might be preferred.
Famous French-Moroccan actors Jamel Debbouze and Roschdy Zem cheek-kissing
On which side to start ?
Now you may wonder, on which side should you start kissing? It is commonly admitted that people from the north of France start with their right cheek, while in the South they would start with the left cheek. Even among the French themselves, there might be confusion from time to time, leading to amusing, possibly awkward moments.
In blue, the regions in France where people offer their right cheek first, and in red where it is the opposite
Generally speaking, don’t worry too much about which cheek to offer first because the French is extremely sensitive to these nuances and movements and can adjust quickly.
No matter which side you start with, don't actually touch the other person’s cheek with your lips and always remain gentle in the contact.
How many kisses ?
Surveys across all regions of France enabled to build a map about the number of kisses when greeting a friend
To make the whole thing more complicated, different regions in France have different rules about the number of kisses to give. While two kisses are the standard way of « faire la bise », it is common in Provence (South-East of France) to give three kisses and it can go up to four kisses in some regions in the Center of France. Instead of receiving many, you might only get one kiss in Brest or when with you visit Belgium.
Anywhere you are, follow the lead of the local person, who will be happy to guide you while kissing !
"La bise" in the workplace is common for long-time colleagues
Talking while kissing
« La bise » is generally accompanied by « Salut, ça va ? », meaning « Hi, how are you ? », to which you may answer « Ca va, et toi ? », meaning « I’m fine, and you ? ». If you are meeting the person for the first time, for example in a cocktail party, you may also give your name, preceeded by « Enchanté », the simplest way of saying « Nice to meet you ».
"Faire la bise" with everyone at a party can sometimes take a whil
When meeting with a group of people at a home-party, if you start doing « la bise » to one person, you may do it with everyone else, while repeating your name to each new person you greet.
Emmanuel Macron receives an awkward handshake from Donald Trump
Like any other kind of greeting, when you fail to do it right, it might feel a bit awkward. The most common example is leaning forward offering your cheek while the other person offers his/her hand. The key here is to show confidence in your movements and to be able to adjust quickly.
If you are familiar with the other person, you might still go for the kiss while shaking hands at the same time. If it is clear that the other person is not comfortable in kissing cheeks, avoid moving forward and simply shake hands. People might refrain from doing « la bise » if the occasion is formal or if the other person is sick.
Ladies meeting on a business occasion will shake hands, as men would do too
Outside festive occasions, if you are meeting someone for the first time, always offer your hand instead of your cheek. This is especially true when greeting older people or from men to women. In business meetings, the host offers the hand first and if no hand is offered, the guest should refrain from offering his/her.
Handshakes should always be firm, supported by eye contact and a smile, while saying « Bonjour Madame » or« Bonjour Monsieur » (Good morning Madam，Good morning Sir). Finally, instead of a too simple « Echanté », you may go on with « Ravi(e) de faire votre connaissance » (« Pleased to meet you »).
French actor Lambert Wilson hand-kisses screenwriter Jane Campion at 67th Festival de Cannes
In higher societies, « le baise-main » or « hand-kiss » is still practised by fine gentlemen. This elegant gesture is a sign of respect towards ladies. It is only permitted to greet married women or single women of advanced age, always in private locations. The man bows while holding the lady’s hand and approaches the back of her hand with his lips, without really touching it. This sign of courtesy is generally very much appreciated by ladies.
Former French President Jacques Chirac was very famous for welcoming First Ladies with a hand-kiss
How about other countries ?
In Western Europe, you will find similarities with France, although it is usually not as codified and systematic as in France. In the Netherlands, Belgium or Switzerland, three kisses are a common greeting between friends or relatives. In the UK, cheek-kissing is less common and is usually performed between very close friends or relatives, especially for celebrations.
Princess Beatrix kisses her son King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands
In Sweden or Germany, it is not part of the social greeting habits, as most of the people prefer shaking hands or hugging, in the case of friends.
French President Emmanuel Macron cheek-kisses German chancelor Angela Merkel, even though it is not in her habits
Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy are countries where you will find cheek-kissing as being a very common greeting, once on each cheek, even between men. Serbs from Eastern Europe usually kiss three times. In Romania, cheek-kissing is also a common greeting, once on each cheek.
Learn more about greetings from all around the world in the next episode !
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