Qu’est-ce que la bise?

As an international student and a foreign traveler, it’s important to be familiar with local customs and traditions. One of the more culturally unique customs of France is la bise: the common greeting gesture of a simple, bright *smooch* against one’s cheek. 

This gesture is an essential part of la vie en France. It’s how the French greet their nearest and dearest and even how they approach their newest acquaintances. La bise is often portrayed and romanticized in cult classics and French cinema. So, it’s not an unfamiliar concept. Perhaps you’re thinking, “After all, if Audrey Tautou can fait la bise, why can’t I?”

For an additional pinch of complexity, the details of la bise vary across France. To master la bise, you should become familiar with the specific etiquette followed by the locals of your particular region. In some cities, folks lean toward the right cheek, in others, folks lean to the left. In some cities one kiss is placed, other cities go so far as to place four. It all depends on the region. For your convenience, I offer the details of my experience with la bise in Bordeaux. This includes regional specific instructions as well as my own personal words of advice. 

In actuality, the concept of la bise is trickier to grasp than you’d imagine. In fact, it’s frequently a cause of culture shock among foreigners. Many find la bise to be too intimate of a gesture in relation to the casual manner in which it’s used. 

La Bise in Bordeaux: Instructions

In Bordeaux, you begin by placing your right hand on your opposite’s right shoulder so as to firmly ground yourself. Gently place your right cheek against your opposite’s right cheek, making a *smooch* sound before switching to to place your left cheek against your opposite’s left cheek, following with another *smooch* sound. After my many awkward attempts before mastery, I share with you six areas of advice: 

  1. La bise is not a cheek kiss. Your lips should never touch your opposite. There should only be cheek-on-cheek contact.
  2. La bise is traditionally practiced between pairs of two women and pairs of one man and one woman. Men traditionally greet one another with a handshake.
  3. Following the rules of the T – V distinction is a good rule of thumb when deciding who to greet with la bise. Those who you address tutoyer, fais la bise! Those who you address vouvoyer, ne fais pas de la bise!
  4. When in doubt, take it slow and steady with deliberate movements. You don’t want your lips, your hands, or your head (yes head, I’ve accidentally knocked skulls with someone) to accidentally fall somewhere else. 
  5. The sound of your *smooch* should be loud. La bise is just plain weird if it’s not audible.
  6. If you’re truly not comfortable with la bise, know that a handshake is a perfectly acceptable alternative. I’ve adored adopting the gesture of la bise to greet my close, personal friends. However, as someone who is more physically reserved, I find la bise very uncomfortable in the early stages of relationships, especially with men. Often, men have attempted to pressure me into la bise. This has actually been the cause of quite the controversy concerning the etiquette of this gesture. Given my own unpleasant experience, I felt it was imperative to share with any other fellow female travelers that, even as a foreigner, you are by no means required to practice la bise. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten the argument, “Oh, but you want to be as the French, non?” Oof… in short, I’ve found insisting on a handshake diffuses the situation with ease.

All in all, I very much recommend trying your hand at la bise while in France. With practice, this greeting can become a noteworthy achievement of your French cultural emersion. But remember, you must find your own personal balance between new and exciting foreign customs and your own native customs.

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