HiP Paris Blog uncovers the secret of la bise, which is just as emblematic in France as views of the Paris rooftops and Eiffel Tower.

As a new Parisienne, I was baffled by la bise.

I was raised in Texas, where the traditional greeting was a full-contact hug. Sometimes the smaller person was lifted off the ground, sometimes there was bonus back pounding. Glasses were smashed. Earrings and hair got tangled. Messy as it was, I complied. Sometimes a firm handshake could substitute, as long as you maintained eye contact.

Girl wearing beret while air-kissing and imitating the French bise while looking at the camera (left). Two girls embracing and doing the French bise kiss in celebration of a birthday (right).

HiP Paris Blog uncovers the secret of the la bise. Four people clinking glasses of wine at a party in Paris.
First image: Leonard Cotte. Top images: Juan Crusoe / Daria Shevtsova. Bottom image: Kelsey Chance

When I later moved to California, I learned that there were three options for hugs: female-female (the “pyramid”), male-male (the “bro hug”), and female-male (the “side hug”). In female-female, the huggers stand two feet apart and lean forward from the waists, placing their arms around each other’s shoulders. There is sometimes gentle back patting involved. In male-male, they grasp right hands, lean in, and pound each other on the backs with their left hands, their right hands providing a barrier against frontal touching. During female-male hugging, or the “side hug,” the female places her left shoulder in the male’s right armpit as his arm briefly, chastely squeezes her shoulders. In none of the California hugs is there frontal contact. Thank God.

People in France kiss in greeting, they do la bise like this man and woman holding a bunch of freshly picked flowers, standing in a meadow.
Joanna Nix

Then I moved to Paris and much to my surprise: They were kissing each other.

My first week, as our realtor took us around town looking at apartments, I’d stick out my hand to shake, but theirs were always limp, reluctant, and unenthusiastic. Did they hate me? Did they hate their jobs? I stopped sticking my hand out.

Kissing in France is very important, including kissing your cat (left). Doing the French bise should be as light as air or macarons, if you will (right).

HiP Paris Blog uncovers the secret of the la bise as people don't really shake hands when they meet in France.
Top images: Brad Lloyd / Dana Devolk. Bottom image: Raw Pixel

The second or third day of looking at apartments, the realtor said something about us being on la bise terms now. He zoomed in and kissed the air next to my right cheek, then my left, his beard pleasantly scratchy. He and my husband still shook hands. Whatever.

The more French people I meet, the more bise-ing I’m doing. In general, you swoop left, kiss the air, swoop right, kiss the air. Let your cheeks touch. Don’t touch anybody with your hands. Don’t let your bodies touch. It takes some practice and basic balance skills, but I’ve gotten used to it. Some French people never actually touch your face at all during la bise, but some plant big juicy smackeroos on both your cheeks. Just go with it. Don’t worry about bise-ing back exactly like they do, otherwise you’ll be second-guessing yourself all day long. Just figure out your signature la bise and use it every time. Also, take your time – hugging tends to be fast and exclamatory, but bise-ing is leisurely.

HiP Paris Blog uncovers the secret of the la bise. Part of the face of a woman wearing red lipstick and ready to do the French bise kiss.

At first, I was confused about the timing – how long do I have to know a French person before we’re on la bise terms? My son’s teenage French friends bise-ed me the first time they met me, but their parents waited until later. My personal trainer, on my third session, announced that we were ready for la bise. Our accountant, after two informative consultations and several hundred euros, swooped in unannounced with la bise. When I helped a stranger put our old Ikea loveseat in the back of his tiny van, he was so happy he bise-ed me before he drove away.

HiP Paris Blog uncovers the secret of the la bise. A blonde woman strolling in the streets of Paris (left). A sunny Paris park when the trees are in full bloom (right).
Buco Balkanessi / Isabel Miller Bottome

I was feeling pretty French, bise-ing all these people. It was never sleazy and it’s over real quick, so even if you mess up everybody just chuckles and it’s okay. I rock my signature la bise now, which is lightly touching cheeks and making a demure smacking sound, but no actual lip-to-cheek contact. I’ve got lipstick to think of.

The only problem is that muscle memory isn’t fool proof. When Americans in Paris greet each other, we get a little confused and our minds flash hug-shake-kiss and we panic and don’t know which one to use. I got to first base unintentionally during a meet-and-greet at church. Once.

Okay, twice. Sometimes we Americans make big mmwwah sounds while we la bise, like kids pretending to be fancy grownups. There are still mishaps with our speed, timing, and direction. But we think it’s fun, pretending to be French, so we keep it up.

HiP Paris Blog uncovers the secret of the la bise, which is how you greet people you meet in France, like this man and woman in an embrace.
Priscilla du Preez

When I went back to the States recently, I realized that my la bise muscle memory had royally screwed up my hugging muscle memory. I knocked heads with a California guy, thinking he was going for la bise and realizing at the last minute that I was coming in face-first instead of sideways for a side hug, but it was too late to abort the mission so I ducked and we bashed heads. I forgot to lean out far enough when hugging my big-haired Texan sister-in-law, and we both lost our glasses in the mix-up. I threw myself, hug-ready, at somebody who only stuck their hand out. Hello, Joe.

The Eiffel Tower at sunrise with pigeons in flight (left). A man exploring the pretty, narrow streets of Paris' Marais neighborhood (right).
Stijn te Strake / Alessia Cocconi

The thing is, you’ve got to keep your sense of humor. Somebody wants to hug you, or kiss you, or pump your hand up and down. If they want to do that, they probably like you enough to forgive your errors in etiquette.

Laissez les bons temps rouler!

People tanning at the Sacré Coeur with the view of the Paris rooftops behind them.
Midlife Leap

Related Links

  • Heading to Paris for the second time? Check out our top tips.
  • Read about the difference between the French and Italian coffee culture.
  • Should the French ditch la bise? Head over to The Local to find out.

Written by Yvonne Shao for HiP Paris. Looking for a fabulous vacation rental in Paris, London, Provence, Tuscany, Umbria or Liguria? Check out Haven In.


Yvonne Hazelton

Yvonne is an American writer living in Paris. She blogs at Escaping the Empty Nest.

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