La bise is a feature of French social life that’s hard to master. It’s very much embedded in French culture: French people do it all the time, but they can’t really explain why or how they learned how to do it. It’s just something they do — and that’s culture!
So the rules around la bise are fuzzy and complicated to explain. Yet they exist! And breaking them can make a situation awkward…
Don’t fall into all the traps of la bise ! Let me help you, with this free lesson on French culture.
Learning goals: This is what you’ll be able to do after watching this lesson
- Understand what “la bise” is
- Know how to do it right, without embarrassing yourself
Bonjour c’est Géraldine.
Bienvenue sur Comme une Française. C’est parti !
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Faire la bise ≠ baiser (slang word for sexual relations)
Je te fais la bise. → I give you la bise, the everyday social greeting.
≠ Je te baise → I ** you
That’s a common but very embarrassing mistake! Don’t make it!
Le baise-main (= “hand-kiss”, mimicking kissing a lady’s wrist) is an old tradition of French manners for nobles and gentlemen, that’s not been in use for a long time.
La bise is also the name of a cold wind, but that’s another thing entirely.
1) Who do you give “la bise” to?
Faire la bise is not a kiss on both cheeks. (It’s only putting your cheek on the other person’s cheek and kissing the air. It sounds weirder and more complicated than it is.) It’s a way to say “hello” (see below for more details.)
La bise is mostly done between women, or between a man and a woman.
You only do la bise between equals: family, friends, sometimes friends of friends depending on how close you think you can get.
Sometimes, men do la bise to each other too, if they’re close friends. If you’re a man and you’re not sure, look at what the other men around you do.
→ French people keep a kind of friendship hierarchy, where you don’t behave or speak the same way around acquaintances, friends, close friends…
For children, you always make la bise, or give un bisou (a small kiss on the head). But never force a kid to do la bise to you or do it to them, of course. They’re allowed to be shy, or not like strangers, or not like la bise!
Alternatives to la bise:
When la bise is not appropriate (as with your baker, between two men that don’t really know each other, if you meet the President…), you have several alternatives.
Serrer la main (= a handshake) is a good way to make a personal and formal greeting in any case.
But simply greeting with Bonjour / Bonsoir is allowed too! A kind word, a wave, and that can be enough.
However, never hug a French person! It’s often too personal for us because bodies touch.
In any case: it’s complicated. Even French people don’t know what to do in every situation, and can mess up their introductions! Don’t worry, a little awkwardness will happen, you have to prepare for it. And when in doubt, look around to see what others are doing.
In a professional setting, whether or not to give la bise depends on the company culture, and how close colleagues are.
Equal colleagues who work together often end up giving la bise to each other (but not between men.) Between a boss and an employee, a handshake (or a simple wave) is more professional. As well as someone you meet for the first time. Finally, no one can force you to do la bise if you’re uncomfortable.
2) How many “bises”?
There’s a disagreement in French culture on how many “bises” you need to make to say hello.
It mostly depends on where you live!
– Une (1) doesn’t happen often (maybe in Western Brittany.)
– Deux (2) is the most common choice, and also the number in Paris.
– French people in the South sometimes make Trois (3) bises.
– You might even find Quatre (4) around the Loire river, west of Paris.
– Cinq (5) is just too much, practically everyone agrees.
There’s also disagreement on whether you should start on the left or on the right. As with the accepted number of “bises”, this rule is a mess. There is no right answer — you need to coordinate with the other person on the spot.
This concept of “there are tons of rules, but no one wrote them” is very common in French culture 😉 .
As you learn French and get to know French people, you’ll also learn the way they do la bise – and that’s a sign that you’re becoming part of our community!
And to reach that rewarding step, you could probably use some help, for tips and shortcuts!
When it comes to the cultural rules you can’t guess — and everything that French people won’t tell you about on their own — you can learn using my program Subtle French for Fitting In.
3) When do you do “la bise”
You do “la bise” when you meet and leave people, when you say “bonjour” and “au revoir” (= Goodbye) (or “bonsoir”, “salut”…).
With “On se fait la bise ?”, you’re upgrading your relationship from handshakes to la bise – especially between men, where it means you’re close. But there’s no turning back. So you have to remember who you’re making “la bise” with, or it might be seen as an insulting slight if you forget!
And when you arrive at a party, you need to greet everyone you know. With the right greeting!
It can be difficult, awkward, time-wasting or funny… As British comedian Paul Taylor likes to say:
Et toi ?
Partage une anecdote à propos de la bise.
Share a personal story about “la bise”
For example, you can write: “J’ai toujours dit “baiser” au lieu de “faire la bise”… Quelle horreur !”
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→ If you enjoyed this lesson (and/or learned something new) – why not share this lesson with a francophile friend? You can talk about it afterwards! You’ll learn much more if you have social support from your friends 🙂
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Allez, salut 🙂