When you greet your friends in France, you’ll most likely “faire la bise.” Literally, you make a kiss. On seeing each other, everyone from burly French rugby players to slender waitstaff, from demoralized office workers to uptight gendarmes gives each other a brief peck on each cheek, as naturally as most Americans shake hands. La bise is a cross between an air kiss and an actual kiss. Your lips make brushing contact in the vicinity of the cheek and that’s it. Most friends and many acquaintances greet each other this way – both men and women. It’s a local custom that goes way back.
One of my friends, Jean-Paul, doesn’t do this with the men he knows. Only women. A retired stage actor, he perhaps wants to put behind him the instant overfamiliarity of the acting world. Or he’s simply decided to reserve his bises for the opposite sex, in the lingering hope that he’s still got it, even though there’s nothing sexual about the gesture. Perhaps he has a weird reticence about being even glancingly intimate with the same sex by “making the bise” with men. Whatever. Ever the actor, though, the subject of most of Jean-Paul’s conversations is Jean-Paul – and I have the impression that if he could plant a couple of bises on his own cheeks, he would.
Still, Jean-Paul is an exception to the local custom. It’s true that people do shake hands upon first being introduced, but after you say goodbye, or the second time you meet, you “faire la bise” for both hello and goodbye. After my friend Richard and I had gotten to know each other, he began stooping – he’s well over six feet tall, and I’m well under – to greet me with la bise (he even asked, after I extended my hand, “On fait la bise maintenant, non?” – or, why don’t we just cheek-kiss now?). In fact, some people ask, on meeting friends of friends, “On fait la bise?” to check that it’s okay to approach each other in that way even if they’ve only been introduced at a dinner or a party.
Some people even do more than the deux-bises greeting. My friend Roland sometimes plants as many as four on each cheek, back and forth, back and forth. He claims it’s what’s done in the part of Brittany he’s from. In fact, it depends. In much of France, the norm is two. In some mountainous alpine regions you offer three, and in the areas around Alsace-Loraine in the northeast, you make do with one. I’ve heard it can be as many as five in some parts of the country. But friends have told me that even the French themselves never know exactly how many bises you offer in the different regions of France. There’s even a website that shows you how many bises you greet someone with, according to each of the many dozens of French départements.
As my friend Pierre told me, “Tout cela rend la vie compliquée.” All of this makes life complicated. Especially when you enter a busy gathering where everyone stands up to “faire la bise” with everyone else. To make things easier, some people just wave to the crowd as they come in saying, “Salut, tout le monde,” or hello, everybody, while others do the rounds of la bise, dutifully pecking cheeks here and there until they can grab a glass of wine and sit down, at least until the next friend arrives.
If you’re going to spend a little time in France, you’re going to “faire la bise” or “do the kiss” pretty frequently with the people you come to know, and you’re probably going to become comfortable with it. Unless you’re Jean-Paul. Then only women will rate a bise. Or perhaps yourself.