Everything you need to know about la bise
Like the Eiffel Tower and crusty baguettes, la bise is emblematic of France. Greeting each other with air kisses on each cheek may appear exotic. But with a little savoir-faire, anyone can master this enigmatic French custom.
What is la bise?
La bise, meaning kiss, specifically describes greeting each other with air kisses. It can be separated from other words for a kiss, like bisous (spoken) or baisers (romantic.)
La bise is like the gallic equivalent of a warm embrace. It is a sign of respect and affection.
Generally, la bise involves an air kiss for each cheek. Simply pucker your lips, lean in, and make a gentle kissing sound as you graze cheeks.
That’s it, nothing more. Yet there are a handful of things to bear in mind to avoid a forgivable faux pas.
Who should faire la bise?
La bise is reserved for greeting and saying goodbye to friends, family, and other social equals. A handshake is typical for professional acquaintances or people you’ve just met.
Amongst female friends, just about everyone will greet each other with la bise. The same applies to men and women who are friends.
Between men, a no-nonsense handshake is often enough. However, good friends commonly signal camaraderie with la bise.
When to greet friends with la bise?
There are no hard-and-fast rules for when new friends graduate to la bise.
If you’re introduced by trusted friends or at a social gathering, you might be instantly welcomed with la bise. Otherwise, you might have to wait until you’ve established a genuine friendship.
One certainty: if everyone else is dishing out la bise, you’re silently invited to do the same. Even if you’ve just met.
Children also join in, although young kids can land a full kiss on the cheek. Older children can join the grownups once they’ve learned the delicate rules of la bise.
In fact, close friends may also skip the air kiss and properly kiss the cheek, but only if it will be welcomed. Often at the end of an unforgettable evening!
When in doubt, follow the lead of others. And remember, once you’ve greeted each other with la bise, it will be your default greeting next time.
How to land la bise like a French person
Left cheek or right cheek? Two, three, or four kisses? The rules of la bise are opaque.
Survey a random sample of French people, and you will hear different answers. In practice, there are only a couple of pointers to remember.
First, aim for the recipient’s right cheek to avoid a painful clash of heads. This rule is good for Paris and much of France, but be on guard for southerners leading with the left cheek.
The trick to la bise is getting close enough to lean in comfortably and lightly touch cheeks, placing a hand on a shoulder or arm to steady your aim if necessary. If you see the head tilting in the wrong direction, adjust accordingly.
As a rule of thumb, expect two kisses. Don’t be surprised if there are one or two more.
In some regions, three or four kisses are standard. While notable events (think birthdays or France winning the World Cup) may invite an additional show of affection anywhere in France.
One final tip, dial down any sound effects. Anything louder than a light kissing noise will startle and amuse.
About those regional variations
Regional variations of la bise reflect the patchwork of French culture.
In the south, three kisses are standard, while several départements in the east up the ante with four kisses. If you want to eat on time, arrive early!
Compounding the confusion, la bise commonly starts with the left cheek in southern France. As ever, be ready to switch things up in a moment!
If you’re still curious, check out ‘Combien de bises?’ Literally translated as “how many kisses,” the website is as helpful to the French as it is to foreigners.
When to avoid la bise?
In France, you only greet people with la bise when you have a social relationship. Never greet your plumber with a kiss, even if this is the sixth time you’ve called them out to unblock a drain.
The same applies to other fleeting relationships, with handshakes standard amongst professional colleagues and casual acquaintances. Sometimes, a simple bonjour is sufficient.
One final thought, it’s courteous to let people know if you’re ill. La bise almost disappeared during the Covid pandemic, and its comeback relies upon people considering the health of others.
The origin story of la bise
The French word for kiss, le baiser, is derived from the Latin “basium.” Citizens of ancient Rome were known to greet each other with kisses, and the custom endured in former Roman heartlands like France and Italy (where it’s known as il bacetto.)
The journey of la bise from Ancient Rome to modern France is absent from historical records. But we know the practice fell out of favor during pandemics like the Black Death, yet kept being revived.
Historical records sporadically mention la bise after the French Revolution (1789.) Yet, the custom is only believed to have become widespread after the cataclysmic events of the First World War before accelerating in popularity during the free-love Sixties.
What is clear is that the la bise is thousands of years old, evolving and adapting as sensibilities change. Hopefully, we’ve helped you make sense of this quintessential French custom as it is today.