Over the months that we have been in Grenoble, we have gotten to know a LOT of people. It seems like every week, we have a few new acquaintances. Some of these people are French, but many are not. So I want to share what we have gleaned as the etiquette for meeting and greeting people in France. We are relying on our own observations and experiences and reports from authentic French friends for this quasi-scientific explanation of la bise. In what I am sure was a helpful spirit, Steve came up with some witticisms that he thought would be appreciated (by some) when writing about la bise in France. For this post’s title, he suggested Tongue-Tied in France,” “A Tongue-in-Cheek Guide to Kissing in France, or “A Slip of the Tongue?” Oh, and a favorite, “French Tongue Twisters.”
We’ve found that walking into un magasin, une boulangerie, une marché, un resto (a shop, a bakery, a grocery store, a restaurant) or stepping up to the open market weighing/checkout without acknowledging the people working there is unpardonable. It has become automatic for us whenever we encounter someone in those circumstances to say “Bonjour Madame or Monsieur.” If we are preoccupied upon entry, we are addressed, and an immediate reply is expected.
Now, when we go to our language exchange mornings, the same is expected—greet everyone when you come in and say good-bye when you leave. But there are a few participants that we feel closer to than others. We have been invited à leurs maisons (to their homes), and so we can greet them with something better than a handshake. In that case, we pull out the French Kissing “rules.”
First, who gives whom les bisous? (kisses and pronounced lay bee-zooh) Girls will kiss other girls, boys will kiss girls (if the boys are lucky and handsome enough), and guys can kiss other guys if they choose to, but this is usually reserved for close friends or family members. Otherwise, you can stick with a firm handshake.
Then, when do you do it? It’s customary whenever you say hello and good-bye. And you do it to everyone. So, set aside some time for this. It does take some time management. You can’t just get up to leave right before you need to catch your tram if there is a tableful of people needing to be kissed.
And, how do you do it? Some believe there is no rule, but others are firm on starting with the left cheek. Watch out for what the other person does to avoid any collisions. There is an art to kissing cheeks. It’s a real no-no to plant a wet one on the actual cheek of a person if you are not intimate with them. It’s more of a kissing of the air next to their cheek near their ear. Pout the lips. No slobbering allowed. This is called se faire la bise (to kiss). Click on the “Pouty Lips” picture below for the YouTube video (French Social Kissing) at the end to see what I mean.
Lastly, how many kisses do you give? As for the number of bises, that depends on where in France you happen to be when all this kissing is going on, not where you come from. Paris is a four-kiss city—two on one cheek, two on the other cheek. Lyon and Grenoble subscribe to two kisses—one on each cheek. I’ve heard that Geneva and the south of France conform to the three kisses rule. With that asymmetry, I’m not positive which side you start or end up on.
Our friend Hélène, an attractive native of Nice (the south of France), regaled us with multiple accounts of encounters of the close kind where she was grossed out by the kissing presumptions of some males to whom she had been newly introduced. There are no hard and fast rules as to what is acceptable. It’s up to the individual and their comfort level.
For us, we practice as much as possible to get it right. I’m not sure what will happen once we return to America, but be forewarned—you better watch out for les bises coming at you.
Gros bisous! (Big kiss!)
Maureen and Steve
Don’t forget to click on the Pouty Lips!