How to Kiss Hello in France

How To: The French tradition of exchanging kisses when saying hello and goodbye to family, friends and often perfect strangers can baffle outsiders. How to faire la bise? Terry Ward kisses and tells.

06.29.05 | 8:48 PM ET

imagePhoto by Terry Ward

The situation: You’re invited to an apero, a casual cocktail gathering among friends often held in private homes. It’s the French equivalent of happy hour. You’re expected to make the rounds upon arriving, going from person to person, whether you know them or not, and greeting each individual with the appropriate number of kisses on the cheek.

Despite the amorous reputation of the French, there’s nothing romantic implied.  “Kissing means only that you are in a certain circumstance, it doesn’t mean you have a special relationship,” Toulouse native Eric Viala, 34, explains.

How to kiss: The French air kiss - ala “Mmmmwah, dahling” - is more of a stereotype than an actuality. Still, you’ll want to avoid planting your lips firmly on anyone’s cheeks unless you know the person quite well.

In general, gently touching your cheek to your recipient’s while pursing your lips and making a kissing sound does the trick. There’s no rule as to which cheek should get the initial kiss, but people often start the kissing to the right. The occasional embarrassing moment—when you’re forced to change your trajectory halfway through to avoid wayward lips—is inevitable.

How many kisses: It depends on the region, so observe the people around you and follow suit. In the southern city of Toulouse, for example, two kisses is the norm, while in some Parisian suburbs you’ll be expected to give four and in the agricultural departement of Aveyron it’s three.

Who to kiss: Among the 20- and 30-something generation it’s pretty much expected to kiss hello, even when meeting friends of friends for the first time.

Who not to kiss: When greeting elderly people for the first time it isn’t always appropriate to faire la bise and you can avoid a potentially embarrassing situation by simply shaking hands. French women faire la bise with other women and between the sexes, but if you see two men kissing one another hello or goodbye it usually means that they are very close friends or haven’t seen each other for some time. As a rule, foreign men should stick to handshakes when forming relationships with French men and go with the flow as the relationship grows. 

When to kiss everybody: At New Year’s parties the kisses flow like vin rouge in France, with everyone getting in on the cheek swapping. Depending on the size of the soiree you attend, your head will be spinning from more than just the champagne when you bid adieu.

When to have a sense of humor: As a foreigner, there’s a fair chance the French people you meet will proffer a hand instead of a cheek as many are aware that other cultures don’t necessarily faire la bise.  “One time, after being introduced as an Australian, I got in position to be kissed but it didn’t happen,” said Jane Elliot, 29, with a laugh. As in all unfamiliar situations, awkward moments come with the territory when traveling abroad, but the French are an understanding bunch and as long as you take your cue from what’s happening around you, you’re sure to make an enlightened impression.


Terry Ward

Terry Ward is a Florida-based writer and a long-time contributor to World Hum.

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