To Bise or Not To Bise?

Eiffel Tower, Paris, France

You might ask yourself what these bises are and why I’m so concerned about them, anyways. In France, as well as in the Suisse Romande fair la bise is a synonym for cheek-kissing, a mainly European custom that gets very complicated when someone french is involved.

To fair la bise generally involves touching cheeks while kissing the air with an audible smack of the lips. That’s the easy part. Now the real question is: Who to kiss and who not to kiss? And then again, how many of these bises shall you give? There are no written rules – which will lead to many awkward situations. While in Paris people give 2 bises, in some suburbs it’s 4 and in other areas in France 3 (the same as in Switzerland). This can already lead to a lot of confusion – if a swiss and a Parisian meet: how much kissing would there be involved? I often see myself in this kind of complication – the last time being just a few days ago. I flew to Paris for a bank meeting with someone I had been on the phone with for months but had never met before face to face. Since I felt as if I knew him forever, I leaned up to faire la bise, and noticed his confusion, but awkwardly followed my spontaneity (probably to avoid by total embarrassment).

Commonly, women can kiss each other in almost any circumstance (it get’s tricky if you greet elderly people for the first time or if it’s a business meeting). Men, otherwise, only will kiss other men if they are related or are two best friends who haven’t seen each other in a very long time. An exception to this is New Year’s Eve – where everybody seems to get loose (probably a consequence of the all the vin).

So what do you do?

Probably the best guideline is – go for it if you feel like it. In my experience, fair la bise (and specially getting it wrong) break the ice and will more often pull out a smile than a frown.

Have you ever gotten yourself into an awkward bise situation abroad?

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7 thoughts on “To Bise or Not To Bise?

  1. I used to work in a nightclub and I would have to greet some of the customers with "kisses" on the cheek. It weirded me out so much because I have personal space issues but it was kind of expected. It was just kind of strange to see a bunch of Americans doing it. But for me, it was always just one kiss on the cheek and that was that. So it wasn't really awkward in that regard. I just felt awkward haha.

  2. I ALWAYS get this wrong, Katherina. My (global) solution is for two people about to greet each other to hold up fingers equal to the number of kisses they're expecting. Lowest number wins. No-one is left in the dark.

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