Les Bises: Everything You Need to Know About Greeting Friends in France
When greeting or parting in France, the French practise a form of cheek kissing. “Se faire la bise” (pronounced bees) is de rigueur. It is a unique way of connecting between friends, close associates and family members, the ritual of choice that stands out the most. Two women, or a man and a woman, smile and share a cheek-to-cheek rub for a second or two. Heaven Forbid! Their lips never touch the skin; they simply purse them and let out a light kissing sound. Voilà! That’s all there is to it. There is no romantic or even remotely sexual connotation, far from it. It is basically a sign of affection, a warm embrace. Sounds simple enough… but it isn’t!
The French love to set rules and regulations in their daily lives, and “Se faire la bise” cannot escape that. In addition, the French keep bending the rules according to the region or even the city they live in. If you plan on learning the basic etiquette of “cheek kissing”, you will have to pay attention to the numerous dos and don’ts of such a custom.
Cultural custom: when to “faire les bises”
Not everyone is welcome to faire la bise. This form of greeting is generally reserved for those who say “tu” to each other, in other words, people who know each other very well. Otherwise, when you are on the “vous” level of conversation, it is expected of you to greet people with a simple handshake. On the other hand, if you are introduced to someone through a mutual friend, you can expect to experience la bise.
Social gatherings can get complicated. If everyone knows everyone else, it could turn into a “bise fest”, which can last for as long as it takes. However, during gatherings in the home, la bise remains the most common of greetings. Children are taught early on to faire la bise with their cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents, and even amongst themselves. It is always touching to see grown-ups stooping while their offspring stand on their toes, trying to reach up to a distant cheek. New Year’s Eve is the exception, there are no rules at that time of the year, and everyone present can faire la bise with everyone else.
Les bises in the French workplace
When it comes to la bise at work, there is a lot of controversy. For many, it is considered a waste of time. But then again, it all depends on the size of the workplace and the number of employees. In a small office, where there are no set rules, la bise can be practised between colleagues. Social manners become more complex in a larger working environment.
The Me Too movement has probably something to do with it as it has made some co-workers wary. Keeping your distance is probably a wise decision. Some women will argue that la bise makes them uncomfortable, while men are being made aware that women today do not seek or even appreciate any unsolicited sign of affection at the office, as it can lead to all kinds of innuendo. What about men between themselves? At the office, the handshake remains prevalent. On the other hand, it is quite common for men who are related, or, who know each other very well, to practise la bise. They do not hesitate to embrace with great affection when they meet, a refreshingly candid gesture which is somewhat surprising to witness when you are non-French.
The rule of thumb is, therefore simple at the office, where a nod and a bonjour are considered to be sufficient. You are expected to do some handshakes in a firm, single downward gesture, with clients and superiors. Never think of la bisewhen it comes to welcoming your preferred tradesman into your home, or when shopping at your favorite bakery. A faux pas to avoid at all costs! In any case, as demonstrative as the French can be in a restaurant, a café or even on a street curb, today many find la bise at the workplace to be an unhygienic habit. An understatement when you are reminded of Covid-19, and the consequences of getting too close to someone.
The history of Les Bises
The bise dates back to Roman times, when the basium or kiss on the cheek was commonplace. Except for Northern Europe, it spread widely from Southern Europe, right up to Russia, including some parts of the Middle East and Africa, where it is practised between men only. La bise has been eschewed on and off over the centuries. For the obvious reason, the custom was abandoned in the 14th century, during the Black Death when people suspected there might be a link between getting too close to someone and transmitting the infection. It became popular again during the French Revolution, as people experienced newfound freedoms, quite unlike Victorian times, when etiquette became very constricting. It was frowned upon to show any sign of affection in public. Kissing on the cheek in those days was permitted only in the household, where no stranger could witness such laissez faire. At the end of WWI, the custom was dropped once again. Faire la bise was more or less forgotten until the 60’s and the hippie movement. It came back with a rage after May 68, and it is now commonplace among people of all stripes and ages.
How to “faire les bises” in France
Beginners beware! Depending on the region you live in or visiting, the partakers must first present the right cheek or the left one. Paris and generally northern parts of France prefer to start out with the right cheek, while the South will start out with the left.
Since the rules vary from region to region, it makes it quite confusing for the non-French. Most people give each other two kisses on each cheek, but it all depends once again where you happen to be. In Brittany, one kiss on each cheek is considered enough, while in other parts of France it is considered normal to give three bises on each cheek. Some will take pleasure at giving four. In order to be successful at it, you must learn to lean ever so slightly towards the other person, while reaching for their shoulders with both hands. Once you’ve steadied yourself, you must then lean once again gently forward, lift your cheek to the appropriate side, and hope for the best.
What happens if you are wearing a pair of glasses? Well, you are expected to take them off. And, what if you are wearing a hat with a large brim, or carrying a sizeable handbag over your shoulder or an armful of parcels, or even holding a child’s hand? I honestly have no answer to that conundrum! One can only guess that the spontaneity of the gesture quickly evaporates and then this charming custom could become a burden. The problem with la bise is that in order for it to be successful, it must be as smooth as a passing breeze. By the way, the word bise, with the same spelling, also means breeze, of the frosty kind. As a matter of fact, it is a cold winter wind. Riveting, n’est-ce pas?
Bise, bisou, un baiser… the French language of kissing
In the codified world of everyday France, describing a kiss is not that simple. For starters, the expression donner la bise is not the same as faire la bise. Donner la bise means just that, giving a kiss on the cheek, while saying hello or goodbye. It is an informal greeting, again with no afterthought attached to it, and usually practised between very old acquaintances or, family members. Confused? There’s more. Donner un baiser is a kiss on the lips. That kiss is the prerogative of couples in love. And then, there is le bisou (pronounced beezoo). While bisou and bise have similar meanings, they are not the same. Le bisou is a bise in a class of its own.
Although warmer and more familiar, it remains a platonic quick kiss on the cheek that may be used as a goodbye over the phone. That verbal goodbye may also be used between friends in parting, or, as a closing in a letter or email. Then again, it might also translate into “all my love”. And then there is the expression bisous with an “s”. Bisous, bisous means more than one kiss, e.g. “lots of love” or “kiss, kiss”.
French body language is usually easy to decipher. It is very controlled, cerebral, except when it’s passionate. Just keep in mind that la bise has nothing to do with passion, therefore, there’s nothing to worry about, even if you might feel gauche about it. The French are forgiving and relentless romantics, the worst that can happen is you will get a shrug, and a “c’est pas grave” remark, meaning not to fret; we love you anyway.
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By Denyse Betts
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