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June 29, 2011

In defense of les bises

One of the things I was most nervous about before going to France was les bises, the custom of kissing a person on both cheeks by way of greeting. It seemed way too intimate for moi, someone who doesn't enjoy being hugged by anyone but sig oths and family members. Getting up in someone's grill and nuzzling their cheek, becoming intimate with whatever scent they'd dabbed behind their ears? Non merci; I'll take a handshake.

Everything I'd read before going over led me to believe I wouldn't really have to worry about les bises; they were reserved for close acquaintances-- not awkward American visitors such as myself. But I was soon proved wrong. Within my first week a new friend picking me up for a dinner date leaned over in the car to get up close and personal. Oh hey there.

I was never quite sure who was bises-appropriate, so I always let the Frenchies lead. My fellow teachers never went there, except if we were leaving or coming back from a vacation or if we were together outside of school. My students might bise me, but never in class (except for right before I left). When my adopted family took me to clan gatherings we would engage in what I called the bises parade--upon entering, you had to bise everyone else before sitting down. The process repeated upon leaving. I kind of liked it. It was a protocol that dictated you HAD to acknowledge everyone in the room.

Women would always kiss other women and men would kiss women, but men would only kiss other men if they were family or particularly close friends. One would never kiss a stranger, unless that stranger was a close friend of one of your close friends, and then it was OK. You got that?

There was apparently no wrong time to bise, as witnessed in the Digoin gym when a sweaty women paused her trek on the elliptical to bend down and give a friend some moist cheek love.

After awhile I grew accustomed to les bises, and began to prefer it to other forms of greeting. It's actually far less intimate than a hug, during which one must press one's body against another's, or, barring that, opt for the awkward Seventh Grade Slow Dance tent hug. There's way more going on-- you have to gauge body proximity and grip strength, make sure you aren't going to knock heads, and figure out how soon you can safely pull away.

None of that comes into play with les bises. You just grasp the person's right shoulder for balance, touch your left cheeks, touch the right cheeks, wham bam merci madame.

Small note: les bises always means kisses, but when you use bise as a verb it can also mean, "to have carnal relations." So if you want to use a verb that you're sure won't get misinterpreted, go for transitive s'embrasser.


  1. have you read "the science of kissing"? there's a section with theories on how kissing came to be and one of the evolutionary theories is that people used to smell each other upon meeting and somewhere along the way lips got involved.

    but yes, i quite like les bises but only with europeans. feel like such a poseur doing it with americans.

  2. Yay for this blog post! I get accustomed to les bises when in France, too, and now when greeting friends in the US I feel awkward. I don't rightly know how to greet them! Most people aren't huggers, at least not on a regular basis; waving works okay, high fives don't feel like greeting to me... often there is no formal greeting besides the verbal one, and I mis that. The bises are the right level or social acknowledgement and interaction.

    One occasion when giving the bises gets more tricky: when both parties involved are wearing glasses.