Significance of Kissing in France.
When coming to one of our French workshops for the first time—or simply making a visit to France—you may be startled and perhaps even thrown a curve by all the kissing that goes on. Legendary songwriter and painter Joni Mitchell, a frequent visitor to France, certainly noted it in her song, “In France They Kiss On Main Street.”
The custom can be quite intimidating and confusing. They seem to kiss on one side, then the other; but which one is first? A person confused about this can appear to be doing that crazy dance, the “Funky Chicken”. Quite embarrassing!
So what does all this kissing mean, and how can a newcomer deal with it?
In France, a kiss is actually one of two important greetings. The first is saying, “Bonjour” and the second is cheek-kissing. Whereas you say bonjour literally to everyone, the kissing is only exchanged with people you are familiar with – family members, close associates, in a social group, and with children. It would neither be used meeting an official nor a celebrity. So sorry, this wouldn’t be that chance to get close to a celebrity at Cannes. Kissing in France is known as “Les Bises” and pronounced as “lay bees”. It expresses much more than affection. It acknowledges another person’s presence.
The Kissing Lesson Julie Learned.
I learned the significance of les bises through a very interesting experience during my earlier time in France.
The caterer I use for my workshops always brings his young son with him when he comes around. When he first started doing so however, the little boy would always hide behind his father’s legs. I thought it was because he was very shy, so I would just greet the child cheerfully, wave at him, and let it go.
But then I had my education in les bises. It happened when I was staying in an Airbnb in the South of France while house searching (yes, I bought a house). Normally when renting an Airbnb I would have taken the whole place, but in this instance I took a room in a French family’s home, just for the experience. it turned out it was the same week as the owners’ family, friends and grandchildren all came down from Paris, resulting in 11 people in the house, including me. It was so crowded that the kids were in a tent in the garden.
Every morning, the children would get up, and go around and kiss every person on both cheeks and say, “Bonjour!”
Because I was in the house, they came and kissed my cheeks too. If another adult came in, they would bestow the kisses upon them as well. I learned right away to return the kisses, because if I hadn’t, they would have thought me very weird!
Now I knew.
So the next time I had an art retreat and the caterer came by his young son, I barreled straight over to the child, kissed him on both cheeks and said, “Bonjour”. From that moment he completely relaxed, came out from behind the protection of his father’s legs and his shyness vanished! Now we greet each other every time we see each other. I also learned to have “bon-bons” close at hand as payment for his assistance when delivering at least six fresh baguettes, three under each arm.
So there’s your lesson. When in France, do as the French! They have some lovely customs, and this is one of them. It is considered rude not to greet every person in the room when entering in a social setting. Of course, this may only require a bonjour, especially meeting someone for the first time.
One note on technique: the kisses aren’t real kisses, they are air kisses. Cheek may gently touch cheek, but please, keep your lips to yourself!
So there’s your lesson. When in France, do as the French!
It Varies By Region.
That’s not all!
Although we’ve learned how les bises works in the South of France, it works differently in other regions. For example, in Belgium, as well as in Brittany, they kiss only once, not twice. Conversely, there are areas in northern France where four kisses are the norm. The four-kiss custom is also more common among older French residents.
Which cheek comes first. Again, it depends where you are in France, as it the cheek-order varies by region. Just, go with the flow and follow the lead,
For more complete information, here’s an interesting article on the kissing custom throughout Europe.
P.S. No Hugging!
Also, while kissing is certainly a thing, hugging is not!
Non, non, non.
If you’re from a place where hugging is a thing (California, for example), don’t give in to temptation and go in for the hug. Do this to a French person, and they will be completely freaked out!
Blogger: Julie Snyder
Julie Snyder is a professional artist and also the programs director of Workshops In France. A native of Scotland, she is a seasoned traveler who splits her time between California and France. You can learn more about her role with Workshops in France here.
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