French kissing

Note: This post was voted Expatica France’s best blog for 2010/2011.

I wonder what fool it was that first invented kissing. ~ Jonathan Swift

Faire la biseIt’s always seemed strange to me that the two acceptable greeting gestures in French society are the handshake and the kiss. As body language goes, they’re pretty polarized: one keeps people at a polite distance; the other draws them intimately close.

I spent both my sojourns in France longing for some middle ground, something that wouldn’t make me feel as though I were concluding a deal (or a date!)

It’s not that I don’t like kissing. I like it just fine. But I spent the first 19 years of my life believing that a kiss was a declaration of sorts — if not of the romantic form of love, then at least of one of its other varieties. Not so in France, where the kiss is reduced to a routine salutation, a matter-of-fact accompaniment to hello and goodbye.

Today’s post, all about la bise, is called Kissing à la Française. It begins like this:

“It’s been three years since the Republic of France and I parted ways. There are things I miss about my former home (hot chocolate and people-watching at Le Régent, for example) and things I don’t.

Frankly, I’m not missing kissing.”

You can find the full story of my struggle to reconcile this Gallic custom with my Anglo upbringing at

Happy Valentine’s Day. Bisous à tous!


About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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12 Responses to French kissing

  1. Celine says:

    I believe the pictures on are not accurate at all 🙂 “se faire la bise” is kissing on the cheek and never on the mouth. Kiss on the mouth is only between lovers. And that’s a huge difference (for me at least).

    As a French I don’t see much difference between American hugs and French kiss. Most of the time you don’t even really kiss the person, just make the sounds. In that case, it’s really like an American hug.

    Anyhow, in France, you don’t kiss anyone. Only people you know, meaning family and friends. It tends to change. But my grandmother will never kiss someone she doesn’t know. Also when a person in France offers to kiss you on the cheek, you should take it as a great compliment: the person want to be friendly with you.

    But I understand what you mean, I hate being kissed at work, and so always shake hands with my colleagues.

    Don’t know where this habit comes, but it was not always like that (older people don’t kiss anyone).

    • Maria says:

      Thanks for this — I’m so glad to hear your take on la bise. Every French person I’ve asked has a slightly different interpretation, which is very frustrating! But now that you mention it, I remember being introduced to a couple of elderly women, and they most definitely did not lean in for a kiss. One of them just smiled and said “enchanté.” I hadn’t even known that was an option!

      Regarding the Expatica photos, I noticed they all break the “Where” rule. That’s the Valentine’s Day influence, I suppose.

  2. Celine says:

    Forgot to say but for me the word “kiss” in English is really a love kiss, I mean on the mouth. Weird to read “French kiss to say hello”. For me we just hug or “faire la bise” 🙂 Most of the time we “kiss” but we don’t even touch the person.

    The interpretation may depend on where the persons are coming from, have a look at In France too it’s a real debate.

    And yes elderly tends to say “enchanté” (nice to meet you). It’s only a young thing to kiss everyone. But I’m like you, I don’t like to kiss person I meet for the first time. And it should not be otherwise. If it happened to you (because it can happen), guess it means you meet very enthusiastic person or very unpleasant.

    But as an expat, I understand the feeling! I feel the same when someone hugs me. Very uncomfortable to be hugged!

    • Maria says:

      “French kiss” in this case is a play on words — it’s what my youngest daughter used to call la bise. I had to stop her from saying “Mummy, let’s French kiss” when we were in Canada because people would look at us in shock whenever she said it!

  3. bookjunkie says:

    Loved your kissing article….it revealed loads for me. I have a french cousin but she has reverted to our ways instead and dropped the air kisses for hugs. Although I am sensing she is not as comfortable with the hugs.

    Oh yes ‘French kissing’ and ‘la bise’ are so different….thanks for this excellent article which I just tweeted 🙂

    • Maria says:

      My Korean friends are also uncomfortable with hugs — the older women, anyway. They tell me it’s a “very strange custom.” Ah well, if we were all the same, life wouldn’t be nearly as interesting!

      Thanks for the tweets!

      • I realize my French cousin’s comfort level and try not to hug her too much or too hard. As a kid I used to hate wet kisses and I was forced to go around and get kissed by tons of relatives, so I sort of understand how she feels.

      • Maria says:

        Social hugging is like social kissing: it should be lightly done. I don’t like being crushed into someone’s chest when I’m expecting an air hug!

  4. I much enjoyed reading your (linked) article and saw that hilarious map. Hugging? Kissing? Two times, three times? I lived in a lot of different places and now travel often between the US and Europe and I always always do it wrong when I change locations 😉

    • Maria says:

      Thanks, Miss F! That map is fantastic! And yeah, trying to keep each culture’s greeting styles straight is like trying to remember which side of the road you’re supposed to be driving on — it’s even worse when you’re jetlagged!

  5. Vincent says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed the article you contributed to France Toulouse-based MyAmericanMarket business newsletter.

    I could add to your article regarding the technique of kissing (la bise) there is a difference in my experience between southern and northern France: in one part of the country you start kissing to the left, and for the other part of France you start kissing to the right.

    Occasionally therefore it happens that two people engaging in “La bise” realize it is not going to work, so one has to yield to the other’s preference in a split second, I wonder whether studies have been done as to what could explain the rules of this “kissing negotiation”.

    Born and raised in France, and having lived in the US for 10 years, married to a US national, I must admit I am fond of this mark of tenderness towards another person, and while it can be done quite mechanically in a brainless fashion, it can also be quite sensual as it breaks for a brief moment “personal space”, yes “La bise” is magic 🙂

    • Maria says:

      Merçi pour ça, Vincent — t’es trop gentil. I thoroughly enjoyed this comment! I’ve heard stories of “face collisions” between people who begin la bise on different sides, but I didn’t realize there was a split along north/south lines. I’d hoped to find a map similar to the “combien de bises” one that would show the left-starting regions and the right-starting ones, but sadly I couldn’t find one.

      I’m always happy to hear the French perspective on la bise. Most French people I’ve asked tend to view it pragmatically. You’re the only one who has explained it in such poetic terms. I want to believe that la bise is magic!

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