To Bise or not to Bise

Definition: La bise – To kiss somebody on the cheek

Ever wondered why people are always kissing in France?

Well, this something I have wondered about (and occasionally panicked over) since I arrived here.

What to do? How to do it?  Here follows a few of my half-baked theories based on trial and error.

disclaimer: I am no expert and consider this a live and learn exercise with alot of learning left to do – as I suspect most French people do….

When does it happen?

French people bise each other all the time. When you arrive somewhere it is pretty much mandatory to bise the people you meet.

This can be when you arrive in the office in the morning or at a social gathering. Never mind that you are half awake or that you are feeling a bit smelly, you shall kiss people.

However, know that there is etiquette associated with the kissing..

Ze Rules

Of course, as with many things in life the rules are different for women and for men. Having said that there are no set rules.

As with many aspects of life in France it is more a set of exceptions. (ever done french? think passe compose with the verb etre)

So women are more likely to exchange la bise with their colleagues. Men are more likely to shake hands. Men may exchange la bise with other men, but in general this is due to a previous well established common historical bond, for example we grew up together, we worked together for 10 years in a different county, you saved my cat from a mudslide, you saved my sock from my cat etc. etc.


How to know when to bise and when not to bise, and how does one bise others? Well I asked this question after a couple of years of utter confusion. Answer was, well you just have to kind of go with the flow. So if someone looks like they are willing to exchange bises, go for it. This can be indicated by a tilting of the head, big smile and incoming approach to your personal space.

However, if the person you are greeting holds out their hand, this is an indication of non-willingness. They may do this because they suspect you don’t want to bise, so don’t take it badly.

What not do do

Warning: sometimes you may end up in the strange situation where you start to shake hands and midway both people realize they want to exchange bises and then you end up doing both. Which is in fact is quite an intimate embrace. Lock and hold kind of situation. Here the best thing to do is to disengage as gently as possible and so far as I can make out, eyes down, sidle to the left and continue to converse as if lock and hold neeever happened. (suggestions welcome here)

How does one do it?

To bise someone, you tilt your head to the right (very important to avoid headbutts), move your face forward, place your cheek on the other persons cheek and do a quiet kiss sound. Loud mwah mwah darling is not really the done thing here. It seems that actually kissing someone on the cheek i.e. planting your lips on their cheek is bit of a no-no too. Having experienced this a few times I can confirm that it is mildly unpleasant (kind of sticky), whereas the quiet mwah mwah version is quite pleasant – peoples cheeks are so soft, women’s especially (sorry but its true).


Associated with all this, there are of course pros and cons.

Advantages are that you really you get a good sense of how people are doing when you meet them. The human contact is very grounding, and in some circumstances can help dissipate tensions whether it be a family or work context. It is also quite simply a lovely way to make human contact.

Disadvantages are that in some situations you may encounter some sleezes who make it their business to bise you as much as possible. This of course applies to both sexes and in all directions. Also you may find yourself in front of someone who obviously hasn’t had a shower in three days and you are confronted with possible diplomatic incident. Also three day shadow is prickly!!! And there is the bise-rate (we missed!), where you headbutt someone or end up in a lock and hold situation with your boss and other similarly cringeworthy situations.

A few technical points to note:

    • Depending on where you live in France, the number of bises are different, varies from 1 -4, although don’t worry there are maps which indicate how many per region (like this one!)
No. of kisses per region in France


  • French people think that Irish/English/German/Swedish/Finnish/American etc. do bises
  • When you think about it, we do – but mostly with family and maybe some (close) friends
  • When foreigners arrive in the office or the family they will be the happy recipient of many bises
    • this may cause neck spasm or crick in the neck to the unprepared

Overall, I must say I recommend whole-heartedly as it is a very positive aspect of French living. So if you are hesitating or a little bit ill at ease, my recommendation would be – go for it! After a few weeks you will be totally at ease.

However, if you really don’t want to – then that’s fine too. Shaking hands and big smiles are grand. Whatever keeps you relaxed and happy….

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