French Culture Lesson — La Bise

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 !

Want all the vocabulary of the lesson ?

Want to read this lesson later ?

0) Warning

Faire la bisebaiser (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!

Click here to learn more about 5 (Very) Embarrassing & Common Mistakes in French

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:

LA BISE C’EST TROP COMPLIQUÉ
LA BISE C’EST UNE PERTE DE TEMPS

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 !”

Want to save this for later ?

And now:

→ 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 🙂

Double your Frenchness! Get my 10-day “Everyday French Crash Course” and learn more spoken French for free. Students love it! Start now and you’ll get Lesson 01 right in your inbox, straight away.

Click here to sign up for my FREE Everyday French Crash Course

Allez, salut 🙂

Join the conversation!

  • I used to visit the St Malo area in Brittany quite
    a bit some years ago, and I seem to recall being
    told that La Bise was x 3 in that part of France.
    I think that that was mostly what happened, but
    then sometimes it didn’t ………….??
    Yes, it can be confusing, but it’s also kind of fun
    to figure it out as you go along. And as for the
    dreaded “ba*s*r word …………………. OMG !!
    If you’re not too sure, then simply don’t use it.

  • Merci Géraldine cet leçon est très utile. Même un de mes professeurs a admis utilisé le mauvais mot à quelqu’un qu’elle ne connaissait pas bien!!
    Bonne soirée
    Anne

  • J’étais à l’hôpital la semaine dernière et j’ai dû passer un scanner. Le technicien m’a dit de “baisser mon pantalon”.
    Alors je me suis assis, elle m’a demandé pourquoi j’avais fait ça.
    J’ai dit que je pensais qu’elle avait dit de t’asseoir et de baiser mon pantalon, croyant que c’était une expression française … 🙂
    Elle m’a demander “Quelle est l’expression anglaise ?”
    je lui ai dit « baissez votre pantalon »…. 🙂

  • Merci pour la vidéo! Pourtant j’ai une question,
    If you go on an exchange to France, and you just meet your host family,
    what is the normal way to greet them, as it will probably be the first time meeting them? Do you kiss them on both cheeks, or do you do a handshake?

  • Pas seulement dans les pays francophones on fait la bise. Même en pay-bas, on fait la bise, surtout en famille. Entre femme et femme, entre femme et homme on fait la bise trois fois. Entre homme et homme on serre la main. Merci, Géraldine pour tes éxplications!

  • Double Your Frenchness

    Crash Course

    Enroll in in my free 10-lesson course that has helped thousands like you 2x their Everyday French in 10 days!

    Share this post!

    Share on facebook
    Share on google
    Share on twitter
    Share on linkedin
    >

    Download this lesson as a PDF!

    Please enter your name and email address to get the lesson as a free PDF!