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For all the kisses that you will encounter this year, especially with Valentine’s Day around the corner, this article will help you understand the art and customs of French kissing! La Bise, or the kiss in English, might not be the type of French kissing you have in mind, but instead, is an important cultural action that is used to say “hello,” “goodbye,” and even “congratulations” and is something you will encounter all over France– the act of air kissing the cheeks! Sometimes referred to as ‘air kiss,’ ‘cheek kiss,’ or ‘faire la bise,’ la bise is institutionally practiced in France and is serious business. In this article, you will learn the why, how, when, and who of this kind of French kissing.
Top 6 Facts About La Bise
1. History of La Bise
The history of la bise actually brings us back to the Romans, who had three different types of kisses: romantic kisses, religious or friendly kisses, and kisses for greetings called “basium” which makes up the root of the modern French word for kiss le baiser (shortened to la bise). Romans greeted one another with “basium” for the same reasons that the French use la bise, in a gesture of honesty and integrity. While used during the Middle Ages, la bise became the cultural custom that it is today following World War I.
Even the French President Emmanuel Macron does it at official functions!
2. Different Regions in France Practice La Bise Differently
To make matters a bit complicated, the number of “kisses” on the cheek during la bise will depend on the region of France that you are visiting. The “kisses” that you give do not include lip-to-cheek contact, but rather consist of a light grazing of the cheeks (we will go over the technique a little bit later), and the number can range anywhere from one kiss to FOUR! While two is the most common choice, and the number in Paris, three and four are also common. Use this website, which translates to “how many kisses,” in preparation: “http://combiendebises.free.fr/.”
We highly recommend watching this video that illustrates best how confusing practicing La Bise can be!
3. Know Whether to Start from the Left Cheek or the Right Cheek
The concept that “there are tons of rules, but no one wrote them” is very common in France, especially with the art of French kissing. In terms of which cheek to start with, there is never a right answer as it depends on the region but in Paris and in the majority of France, you go to the left, kissing the other person’s right cheek first. You can also coordinate with the person in the moment.
Here’s a map that roughly illustrates how French people in different regions practice la bise. The areas in red start with the left cheek while the areas in blue more commonly start with the right cheek.
4. Who Can You do La Bise with?
Deciding who you do la bise with is easier because there are some set guidelines. Air kissing is done mostly between women or between a man and a woman. You only do la bise between equals, which includes family, friends, sometimes friends of friends or even work colleagues, depending on how close you are. Sometimes men even do la bise with one another too, if they are close. If you are ever unsure, look around to see what others are doing.
5. How to Do It Properly
Here is a step-by-step guide on how to properly faire la bise:
Step 1: Make eye contact
Step 2: Take a step forward (not so close that you are touching bodies but not too far away so that you have to lean uncomfortably forward)
*Optional: Put your hand on their arm or upper shoulder.
Step 3: Pucker lips
Step 4: Lightly touch your cheek to their cheek
Step 5: Make light air kissing sound (otherwise la bise will sound empty!)
Step 6: Switch cheek sides (from one to four times and from left to right or right to left, depending on local customs)
7. And if you don’t do it properly… C’est pas grave!
Like everything in life, practice makes perfect! So, if you make a mistake your first few times … c’est pas grave (a French expression that is used to shrug off something that is said or done). The most important thing is that you are showing respect to the French and their culture by making an effort to understand and practice the local customs. Keep trying and the art of French kissing will be yours!
The Customs in Other European Countries
In England, the most common way to greet someone, especially in a formal situation, is with a handshake. The exception being that female friends may greet one another with a kiss on the cheek. Keep in mind that the best way to say thank you in Britain is to send a thank-you card or make a phone call!
When meeting someone new, you can expect to shake hands but once a relationship is made, women are greeted with a kiss on each cheek, starting with the left, and men are embraced in a hug, with a pat on the shoulder. In formal situations, women are referred to as ‘Doña’ and men as ‘Don’ followed by their first name.
The most common greeting is a handshake with direct eye contact but close friends may hug or kiss on the cheek. Verbal greetings include guten tag (good day) or hallo (hello). In formal situations, use the other person’s title and last name, ‘Herr’ for men and ‘Frau’ for women, until you are invited to move on to a first-name basis.
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