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La Bise | The Kiss

Have you ever felt a slight pang of anxiety when meeting a French person? Do you find yourself sweating at the thought of misjudging the situation and starting from the wrong side, kissing too many times and then just secretly hoping they would shake your hand rather than kiss?

All this and you have not yet even spoken a word of French; a language that you have spent so much time revising, learning its conjugation tables, grammar, and irregular verbs!

Before we continue...

The teachers take over!

At Professional Language Solutions we know that our best asset is our army of teachers. Not only are they talented language teachers, they also have a wealth of knowledge on the many aspects of language and learning; culture, history, art, literature etc. That’s why we encourage our teachers to contribute to our blog; we love hearing about all their thoughts, ideas and experiences. Today's article comes from Sandrine, a French teacher who’s been working with us for 17 years. Sandrine is from Normandy and has lived in London for 28 years.

Back to the article...

Be assured that this subject (the French greeting and kiss) is just as complex for us natives of France as it is for you; however, we are used to it and our initial embarrassment quickly develops into a familiar giggle or simple shrug.

It’s fair to say that this is a subject which never gets old and remains as current as ever, having recently been covered in article on, titled ‘Et vous, comment faites-vous la bise?’ (And you, how do you do the kiss?). The author wrote it as part of a national initiative called ‘La fete de la science’ (La fete de la science), using online polls to design maps of kissing customs.

Is there a science behind what we refer to as ‘la bise’? Regional maps of France show differences in terms of the number of kisses and which side to start from. I feel that it is more complex than this. There is not only a geographical divide but also a generational and city versus countryside one which I observe every time I return to France.

Although my family originates from Normandy, I grew up in what we call now ‘la grande banlieue de Paris’, 40 miles west of Paris on the river Seine in a commuter town or ‘ville dortoir’. In order to greet, thank or say farewell to a member of family, or stranger, I would invariable kiss them 4 times, starting on the left cheek. This took time if you had 9 aunties and uncles but it was time that we had and accepted as an important tradition. Children would give only one kiss or ‘bisou’ straight on the cheek, leaving a wet patch that the older generation still adores as it is a habit that remains to this day: a thank you from a child is followed by one kiss on whichever cheek you turn to the child.

However, what has changed over time is the number of kisses. I no longer give 4, but 2 kisses to my mum. After all, these are busy times that do not warrant frivolity and time-wasting! Parisiennes, and by extension the inhabitants of the large suburban areas, tend to kiss only twice now.

Learning a language is all the more rewarding when it involves learning about the customs of the people speaking it and the intrinsic link to its culture, its people and evolution. How many times we kiss and the side we start from is a mere illustration of the exciting variety of habits found in French-speaking countries. Travel, observe, watch, listen, repeat and above all laugh at your own mistakes!


Get in touch with Professional Language Solutions if you’d like to learn more about French language and culture; we also provide training in over 100 other languages.

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