Imagine the scene. You arrive at a house or an apartment for a party. It’s loud and hard to hear over conversations and music playing in the background. You only know one or two people in the entire room. If this scene were to happen in the U.S., you would probably walk in, say hello to the host or whoever greeted you at the door, and find the person who invited you. If you wanted, throughout the evening, you could drift in and out of different conversations, and sometimes introduce yourself to people, maybe shaking hands. If this scene were to happen in France, there would be a key difference: just after arriving at the party, you would go around the room and systematically kiss every person on each cheek, saying something to the effect of “Hi, (your name).”
These kisses in France are called “les bises,” and the act of greeting people with kisses is known as the expression “faire les bises” (make/do kisses, the translation ends up sounding a little odd…). My description above may seem straightforward enough: when you meet someone, you “fais les bises” with the person. But any Anglophone who has spent some time in France can tell you the matter is much more complicated than that…
First, let’s get to the point of “faire les bises.” In many social situations in France, it’s important to simply recognize the presence of other people. This goes for always saying “Hello” and “Goodbye” when one goes to a public place such as a store. The same idea functions at a party or a more intimate event, especially when you are introduced to friends of friends. “Faire les bises” is thus, in my mind, a more intimate and privileged expression of this acknowledgement of other people. You are not only saying hello, but carrying out a social ritual that is reserved for more private situations.
Where the situation gets sticky for a foreigner is especially “When do I ‘faire les bises’ with French people?” I’ve asked French people about this, hoping they would hand me a user guide for social etiquette. Much to my dismay, the response I most often get is “it depends on the situation and on the person.” Of course it does. But when you’re non-native, trying to feel out social situations is difficult and full of second-guessing. Another scenario to illustrate how complex this issue is:
I participate and have participated in the past in city bands that rehearse once a week. This is a very tricky social situation for me to navigate. You arrive for rehearsal and people are scattered around the room, some of them you know, some you’ve never talked to. In this situation, it’s not expected to go around and “faire les bises” with everyone. However if there are people you know better than others, it may be a good idea to go over to them and make the gesture. Sometimes, I’ve also regularly “faire les bises” with the conductor at the beginning of every rehearsal. What I don’t like about this situation is you are very obviously and clearly choosing who you kiss and who you don’t. In other words, it obviously includes some and excludes others.
To make matters more complicated, I think it is more difficult when you are a woman. Men, depending on the region and level of intimacy, may kiss people they know well, but often they just shake hands. Women, on the other hand, kiss much more often (men and other women). But sometimes women shake hands with other people as well. This is often reserved more for work situations, but not always. And then of course, people who become close may move from hand-shaking to kissing.
Finally, in certain situations if the receiver of the kisses or hand-shaking is unaware, it is also acceptable to declare “I shake your hand” or “I kiss you.” An example of this was a colleague I observed the other day. She entered a room where another colleague was cleaning up his things. She said hello to him and he said hello back, as he continued to gather his things. Finally, my colleague said to him “I shake your hand?” to show that she was there, waiting to establish this ritual contact.
I try my best to observe this handshaking, kissing culture. But I will admit, sometimes my less structured Anglo-Saxon ways get the better of me and I prefer to generally wave and say hello/goodbye to everyone in the room, rather than go and greet each person individually.
I discovered quite some time ago as well, that kissing also transcends into writing and phone calls. How surprised I was the first few times friends (of both genders) signed letters, e-mails, or signed off on the phone saying something like “kisses” (bisous), “je t’embrasse” (I kiss you), “gros bisous” (big kisses), etc. I quickly realized that this is a really common sign-off between friends and even close acquaintances that is more about the formula than actual kissing. It’s more or less the equivalent of writing “love” in English, or “xoxo.”
Often when I tell French people that we don’t “faire les bises” in American culture, they are surprised and ask when we DO do to greet one another. This is where one realizes how hard it is to explain these social rituals to foreigners. I usually say that most people you simply greet by saying “hello” or “hi,” (if at all), and often shake hands when meeting someone for the first time. Close friends and family, though, you may hug or kiss.
For all the kissing they do in France, which Americans often experience as a very intimate gesture, the French find hugging, on the other hand, very intimate. There is no verb for “to hug” in French, the closest translation is “se serrer dans les bras” (to embrace someone). This tight and close bodily contact appears then very intimate to the French and probably strange considering it’s used in selected situations. I’ve had plenty of awkward encounters in Franco-American mixed company, where upon saying goodbye there was an uncomfortable attempt on one side to “hug,” and a move to “faire les bises” on the other side. Or often, when doing “les bises” with someone, the other person will lean in. This can also be a cause for awkward situations if you both lean in on the same side and then have to mutter some excuse along the lines of “whoops, wrong side.”
Finally, different regions also have a different amount of kisses. Generally, it’s two (one on each cheek) but there are regions that only do one, three, and sometimes up to four. These are also fascinating situations to observe as a foreigner, when you have a group of “two kissers” and “four kissers” together. Almost every couple who tries to kiss ends up needing to say something like “ah no no, four times” while the other person laughs nervously, “ah yes, okay, we’ll get there!”.
Thus, “faire les bises” is, for me, a social game. I haven’t learned all the rules yet, I certainly haven’t mastered the strategies, but I’m hoping with time that I’ll become a more aware and intelligent player.