Greeting people in a foreign country is often tricky. This is especially true in France. La bise (kissing someone on the cheeks to say “hi!”) is a French tradition, complex for foreigners and tricky for the French themselves. Should I kiss this person? Or just shake hands? If I should kiss them, then how many times?
The French generally know whether to kiss the person. They don't always know how many times (from one to four kisses) though, because many factors influence this choice, and thus it is different from person to person.
Here are some factors that should be taken into account:
- Relationship you have with that person
- Age (Child or adult?)
- Region (which part of France are you in, or which part of France are they from?)
- City or countryside?
The most important factor is gender. If you are male, you get to kiss significantly less people than if you are female.
Here are the general rules:
- Women kiss (almost) everybody.
- A man and a woman kiss each other.
- Two men (generally) don't kiss, but shake hands.
Now, kissing implies some kind of familiarity. You might not want to kiss your boss (depending on how familiar you are with them), but you may want to kiss your colleagues and your friends, for example. If you are meeting someone for the second time, try to remember whether this person kissed you the first time, and how many times, and do exactly the same. If you didn't kiss the first time, the person might offer kissing this time saying something like “on se fait la bise?” (shall we kiss?).
Families are a significant exception to the previous gender rules. Most of the time, in French families, everyone kisses everyone. Yes, even that old aunt you have seen twice in your life. And yes, you will kiss your grandfather even if you are now a grown up man!
The gender rules apply to adults, but not necessarily to children. For example, even if you are a man, you may kiss the male child of your best friend.
Caution! For obvious reasons, you don't want to kiss an unknown child, regardless of gender. Keep the kisses for the children that you already know, when you are sure that it is normal for them (and their parents) to be kissed by you.
The rules about whether to kiss or not will not change much according to region. However the number of kisses will vary a lot.
You can find maps such as this one, which will give you a clue of the accurate number depending on the region.
City or countryside?
Within the same region, you might receive more kisses in the countryside than in the city. As a child, I remember being puzzled because everyone in my city would kiss twice, but my grandparents would insist on kissing me four times whenever I visited their village.
Hugging is uncommon in France. After five years of living abroad, I am still surprised when someone wants to hug me just to say “hi!”
Kissing unknown persons?
The trickiest situation is of course when you meet someone for the first time. The safest way to go is to not kiss them first. You will often get kissed by total strangers (especially if you are a woman!) if you meet them in informal settings, such as a party or meeting a friend of a friend.
What you should remember
If you are unsure about whether to kiss, let the French person decide by letting them kiss you or giving their hand to you.
If you don't know the number of kisses to give, two is a safe guess, as it is the most widespread and usual number. If the French person goes on kissing you after two, just go on and follow their example.
In case the right number was one, and you gave two kisses to the person (as happened to me in Belgium), the situation is a little bit awkward, but it's always a good idea to laugh. Take it easy and remember that the natives themselves often don't know whom to kiss and how many times!
And what if I don't want to kiss a person? If you don't want to kiss someone who might want to kiss you, you can often avoid it by quickly giving your hand to them. They might be slightly offended though.
If such a thing happens, you can always save the situation by pretending that you're sick (je suis malade) and then the person will believe you are actually doing them a favour. But not if they have see you kiss someone else just before!