Greeting the French: The Right Number of Kisses
Updated: Feb 14
Since Valentine’s Day was this week, I thought I’d do a fun post on an issue that baffled me when I lived in France - the kiss. So, you're in France, mingling with the locals - how many kisses are you supposed to give a French person when greeting them? Here are some tips to help you figure it out!
Living in France was awesome! And while I was able to conquer the French language (mostly), one of the great mysteries of my time living there was how many kisses you’re supposed to give when greeting someone - 2, 3, 4? What happens if you give someone the wrong number of kisses? Are you banished to smooch purgatory? Which cheek do you start with – the right or the left? I mean, really, the French don’t always know what to do, so how’s a non-French person supposed to figure out the whole French kiss greeting thing? And how did all this kissing come about anyway? It was way more confusing to me than learning the language!
A few years ago while I was reading a French newspaper, I came across a chart called “Combien de Bises”. In English, that means "how many kisses". While the original chart is in French, I did find a really cool chart in English from radical cartography that is fantastic! Why didn’t someone think of this before!?!
What’s the Word?
The French word for a kiss is “bise” (pronounced beez). The plural is “bises”, and it’s still pronounced “beez”, but the plural is usually reserved for goodbyes. What, there are even rules about the right word to use when coming or going, too? Don’t worry, I’m not going to get nerdy about the number of variations on the word for kiss, when to use which word and with whom. For purposes of this post, I’m sticking with bise and bises. It’s enough to get the number of kisses straight for pete’s sake. Giving a kiss is “faire la bise” (pronounced "fair lah beez").
How did all that Kissing Start?
Blame it on the Romans. Initially, they spread it through Europe and North Africa as the Roman Empire grew. The Latin word for kiss is “basium” and it’s the origin of the French word for kiss “bise”.
All that “smoochin’ bizness” stopped once the Plague came along in the 14th century. La bise didn’t resurface until World War I.
So, let’s get into it, shall we? Here’s a very rough estimate of how to “faire la bise”:
In Paris, you give two to three kisses. What? Not two? Not three? Two TO three? What the…? In my experience whether you give two or three depends on how well you know the person. I have friends in Paris that I’ve known for many years, and I usually give them three, but not always. If I haven’t seen them in a while, probably three. I let the other person lead.
The “norm” in regions like Normandy, is also two to three
In the region around Brittany, four, but sometimes three
The city of Bordeaux gives two, but other places in the region may give, two to three
Places like Marseille give two
In places like the city of Avignon, two to three, but Lyon gives two
In cities like Annecy and Strasbourg - two
Pro tip: What if you’re not sure? Start with two and let the other person lead.
Who Kisses Who?
Women kiss everyone, but they can also offer a handshake instead of kissing a man they’re not acquainted with. Men kiss women. Men don’t typically kiss other men. Kids - that’s another post….
Which Cheek Do You Start With?
Uh, that depends. While there’s no hard and fast rule, I’ve usually seen the kiss-o-rama start with turning your head to the left and smooching the person on the right cheek.
Do the French Give Hugs?
Of course, and my close friends hug me when I see them, but to be safe, just stick with kissing. While a kiss may seem a bit too cozy for Americans, to the French, a hug is considered way more intimate than a peck on the cheek!
What Happens If You Mess It Up?
It’s not a fatal error. The French are very forgiving. They know you’re not French and that this kissing business is a mystery to you. Although occasionally, you may accidently lock lips with someone because you started on the wrong side!
So there you have it – a quick and dirty explanation of how to “faire la bise” in France!
Hope you enjoyed your Valentine’s Day and got lots of "bises"!
Have you had the chance to “faire la bise”? What was your experience? Tell me about it in Traveleidoscope's comment section or on Facebook!