Do you know what an American thinks you want if you gently bring your chest and non-threatening arms ridiculously close to theirs?
Which is not a socially appropriate greeting in France.
So, what do the French want if they approach you in the same way?
Cheek kisses, called les bises.
This is a brief cheek-to-cheek touch on one side of the face followed by another brief touch of the other cheeks. (The standard number of cheek touches varies widely in France. Two is the minimum, and very Parisian. The map at the end of the article suggests it can go as high as 5!) No lips touch the skin, yet a soft kissing noise may accompany each touch. No arms or hands are necessary to execute les bises, though I find a light hand on their upper arm helps me navigate the maneuver.
As a female, I follow these rules: French family and friends get the kisses, coworkers get a handshake.
Of course my Anglophone friends and family get hugs, as usual.
Cleverly, my brain has connected the language I speak with the socially appropriate greeting I should use.
This is pretty handy, except when my English-speaking yet culturally-French colleagues and students approach me for les bises.
In that moment my brain triggers for English speakers and I GO IN FOR THE HUG!
There are two words in French for a hug: un accolade, which translates to “an embrace,” and un câlin, which better translates to “cuddling.” In most social circles cuddling is reserved for very intimate relationships – both in French and in English.
You can imagine then, how awkward I feel when their cheek gently touches mine and I suddenly realize I’ve chosen the wrong cultural greeting – and I’m about to try to cuddle my colleague!
Time slows way down as I redirect my socially inappropriate hug into the expected bises. I get my left arm out of the way, shift my right-arm-embrace into a light touch on the shoulder, and try to back my head up in time for the second cheek touch.
Since les bises can be accomplished without hands or arms, it’s impossible to hide the fact that I was terribly confused. Having clearly flubbed up les bises, I start to laugh and awkwardly explain what just happened.
The French colleague might have been able to dismiss my strange wrap-around bises technique, but my babbling explanation of my awkwardness is too much for the French and they look at me with a sort of deserved bemused pity.
The New Year: a time for les bises
This week, observing employees in the reception area of a French company where I work, I noticed that female coworkers did les bises as they wished each other a Happy New Year. It was very unusual for me to see so many bises at the office, so in my mind I noted: French ladies do les bises as their New Year greeting.
My first student of the year, a man about my age, came to the reception area to greet me and wish me a happy New Year in English. As is custom, he approached me for les bises, but I wasn’t expecting them from a male professional contact, so my brain, hearing English, TRIGGERED A HUG RESPONSE when he approached me for les bises!
Again, too much use of the arms, awkward attempt to recover, embarrassed laugh and silly explanation…
And the super awkwardness continues into the New Year!
Rules [I’m aware of] for the proper use of les bises:
When to use Les bises: for hellos and goodbyes, and to thank someone for the gift they just gave you.
They may also be used as a regular morning greeting for out-of-town family that you rarely see, but honestly this specific practice is still a mystery to me.
Friends and family: Women do les bises with everyone. Men may shake hands or do les bises, depending on how close the relationship is, and depending on family tradition. Fathers and sons in my French family do les bises.
Children are required to do les bises with everyone. It’s part of the normal socialization of all French children.
Professional relationships: your guess is as good as mine! LOL But, definitely as a New Years greeting for sure!
Other Sources on Les Bises
A little online searching suggests that professional colleagues do les bises all the time, but that supervisors do not generally do les bises with their staff. This handy video (en français) explains the dos and don’ts that even the French have trouble figuring out at times!
Also, as you travel around France, you’ll notice that the number of bises changes depending on where you live. When I’m in Paris, it’s two, but when I go visit my french family in the south, it’s three.
So, even the French experience that awkward moment, if one person leaves the embrace while the other is still searching for a smooch!
Map image from landofmaps.com, original map by Bill Rankin, 2013.