Bise! Boo!

In honor of Halloween next week I thought I should write about the scariest thing in France…

Sometimes I actually know what is going on when I am in France…I mean, okay so it is probably not the majority of the time but I’m getting there; now when I nod at something someone says there is like a 50% chance that I know what they meant (45%…WHATEVER).  Point being, I am making progress.  There is one area, however, in which zero progress has been made.  I am basically just as lost as I was the first day I got here.  It is wily and ever-changing, a chameleon in the world of social niceties…

*cue thunderclap and lightening*

A tradition so scary…so intimidating…

*teeth chattering in fear*

…that even the creators themselves can’t seem to get a handle on their Frankenstein, it is…




Alright…maybe that is a little dramatic but seriously, what is the deal?  Even some French are confused by what to do!

Exhibit A:

Exhibit B:

Now, I know I’ve written about this before but last time I was writing about getting over the hump of allowing a stranger into my highly coveted personal space so that they can apply their lips to my face (I have accepted it fully, I swear); but this time I want to talk about the actual rules…or lack thereof.  As you can see in Exhibit B, the side you start on varies, the number of kisses varies, and the time in which you give them varies, as does the person you are giving them to vary.  Now the French have grown up with this tradition and seem to move on instinct…subtly noticing the direction a head is going to go before it has gone there but I have no such luck.  I do things like catch half of a person’s mouth and accidentally force them into a half-way make out because I thought their head was going in the other direction.  I mean, how does any normal touching –phobic Anglo recover from this?

“I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to just lick your mouth.”

Furthermore, I can’t seem to get a handle on the number of kisses that are going to be doled out to me.  I have often had the same person sometimes do two and then sometimes do three.  So, just when I think I’m down with the three and go in for another round, they stop at two and I feel like a jackass.  Why, French people, WHY?!  Don’t you know that I already feel super awkward about kissing strangers?! And don’t even get me started on entering large parties or what to do with children who don’t want to get near you…the confusion abounds.

So, while other people dress as ghosts and goblins this Halloween, I think I will dress as the scariest thing I know…the bise!

20 thoughts on “Bise! Boo!

  1. I think the only way to deal with this is laugh it off! That’s what the French do, after all. Or you ask how many! If you start the air kiss procedure (as opposed to letting the other person do it), you have the upper hand. Decide whether you want to start left or right and stick to it. I’m looking forward to seeing a photo of you in your Bise costume!


  2. I’m still a bise hater, and totally confused about the when/how/how many, too. A French friend taught me a technique once though: If you don’t want to do 4 bises (which is standard among close friends/family), do 2 really slowly. To do 4 bises, normally you do them really fast to get them in a reasonable amount of time. But by first doing 1 bise, then SLOWLY moving your head to do the second, you are showing the person that you are only intending on doing the 2, then stopping. Seriously, it works every time.

    And don’t even get me started on children. The young ones just tilt their heads in your general direction and expect you to know what to do. Do you kiss them on the top of the head? Do you kiss them on one cheek and not the other? Anxiety inducing every time.


    1. that is a good thought – clearly, I just need to be a more assertive bise giver. HA – yes, the children are the hardest. I never know what to do probably because both parties are feeling incredibly awkward!


  3. Oh my gosh, this made me laugh SO hard. Seriously, what expat has not wondered the same questions over and over again? For me, the “vous vs. tu” is still a scarier concept, especially that here in Arles, three bises is just standard–unless it is business related (in which case why are kisses involved? I know!) then it is two. Here we start on the left but I seem to remember in Paris that it was on the right. And WHO is planting their lips on your cheeks other than a loved one? :O That to me seems like a major non-non. Heehee. I love Crystals’s advice although I am NEVER in the four bises category, so hey! Maybe I am not bisable? Hmmm…


    1. the confusion of the bise…I feel like this could be a whole series! haha! MAN – you are lucky, I know all sorts of people who place lips on cheek instead of the standard air kiss. I don’t even know what to do with that -like, am I a jerk if I don’t lip-plant them back? AHHH – such a complicated tradition for the furriners!


      1. I so agree that this could be a whole series–why didn’t I think of this for my own blog!?! And I am serious! WHO is planting their lips on ya? And does this happen to other people? It seems so very gauche to me, not to sound like a total reverse-snob. Maybe you’re just a hottie. 😉

        There is also the question of the arm-touch during the bises…right? I actually do lightly touch my hand above the elbow–because not only is it more elegant than the kind of cuckoo clock kind of head bobbing, it also gives me a way to keep off any potential lip-smackers in a “this is my dance space, this is your dance space” kind of way!

        PS (and you can see this subject has me worked up): I will often pull a total American and offer a handshake. People are so thrown by it but it solves the problem…


      2. Ha – love it Heather – I definitely think you should do your own post on this and link me in – let’s get the take of all the foreign bloggers on this! SO good about putting the hand on the arm. I definitely think that gives a bit more a comfortable and in control feeling…at the very least more natural! haha- as for the lip-planting, maybe it is more prevalent in Grenoble? Don’t know but I am always tempted to wipe my cheek! Terrible!


  4. I think it was former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright who, in her courses on public diplomacy, did a section on kissing. I remember her saying something about how it was one of the most important and frustrating things about the job. Her solution was to keep lists of proper protocol for all places she visited. Maybe someone should make an app for that.


    1. HA – love it! Yes, well, I think that little video that I linked in it pretty awesome…the problem is that even the French don’t have a hard and fast protocol for this. Le sigh! 🙂


  5. I always start with the right cheek and don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who goes left. Plus almost always two, although I know that’s regional. My biggest concern is WHO to bise (90% of the time it’s okay, but I have been surprised e.g. some people at work) and if people will be offended if I say goodbye to a group of a dozen people without going round the whole table and bisouing everyone.


    1. Oh, I just flat out refuse to do whole party bise-ing. It’s just ridiculous – how do you ever get out the door? I have no problem pulling the American card and being like ‘yep…see y’all later!’. But yeah – the at work thing is complicated…you don’t want to bise some people and then have other people think you are bise-snubbing! 😉


  6. I’ve always lived in regions where it ‘s the standard 2, starting in the right, so that’s never bothered me (except in Italy – a whole other story!) What I find confusing these days is other foreigners in France: some do, some don’t , some only do some of the time… and what do you do if you don’t do the bises?


    1. SO TRUE! We have a ton of expat friends and it is always like a fun little guessing game at the beginning and ending of parties. When in doubt I pull an American move and just give a bit wave to the whole room and bolt! 🙂


  7. Ha! I love this post. Being an awkward anglo, I’m the most confused about what to do with other anglos at a party. Just wave and say hi?
    The worst thing I’ve experienced though is giving a bise to someone with a gnarly, nasty beard!


    1. ewww – that is indeed gross! I am not convinced that men wash their beards as they should. and yeah, never know what to do with other anglos…usually just wing it for increased awkwardness!


  8. Hilarious as always! Although I’ll admit when I moved back home I missed the bise… it was so much easier than the complete lack of greeting rituals we have in the states.

    I also just wanted to let you know that I totally admire you! I haven’t found any time to blog since starting my masters program, and I’m impressed by how you’re doing it all.


    1. Thanks Laura! Yes – I have missed your blog terribly but man, don’t I understand. It can really be hard to want to sit at the computer AGAIN after a day of studying! Hope all is well in your world!


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