Greeting Each Other with the Right Number of Kisses… in France!
Since we just celebrated Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d write about an issue that baffled me when I lived in France– how many kisses you’re supposed to give someone when greeting them.
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? And how did all this kissing come about anyway? It was way more confusing to me than learning the language!
A few years ago, I came across a chart in a French newspaper, called “Combien de Bises.” In English, that means “how many kisses.” Why didn’t someone think of this before!?! The chart breaks down the number of kisses given…by department! Uh, department?
Quick side note: France is divided up into three administrative levels below the national level – regions, departments and districts. Each department belongs to a region. There are 96 departments in mainland France.
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 appropriate word to use when coming or going, too? Don’t worry, I’m not going to get into details 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 Business Start Anyway?
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’” stopped once the Plague came along in the 14th century and 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…? 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.
Regions in Brittany, four, but sometimes three.
The City of Bordeaux gives two, but places closer to the Spanish border, two to three.
Places like Marseille give two.
In places like Avignon, two to three, but Lyon and Marseille (technically south, not southeast) give 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 if uncomfortable 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 usually start with turning your head to the left and smooching the person on the right cheek.
Do the French Hug?
Of course, 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 know you’re not French and that all this kissing is a mystery to you. Although occasionally, you may accidentally lock lips with someone because you started on the wrong side!
So there you have it – a brief explanation of how to “faire la bise” in France!
The original article appeared in Traveleidoscope.com under the title, “Greeting the French: What’s the Right Number of Kisses?”
Tina Vignali is an English as a Second Language adjunct at the Charles D. Worthington Atlantic City Campus. She writes a monthly travel-themed column for the CommuniCator.You can follow her trips around the block and journeys around the world in her travel blog