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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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!
- 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.