If you plop yourself down on a park bench in the U.S. and watch people come and go, you’ll undoubtedly see people of all ages meet and greet each other with a hug. Some are just friendly, quick hugs and others are more loving and romantic. Sometimes a hug is accompanied by a pat on the back, or swaying back and forth, and sometimes there’s a lot of distance between the two people. No matter the type, you will see lots and lots of hugs because it’s a common greeting among Americans. But upon arriving in France, I quickly learned there’s no hugging in France. You don’t hug to say hi. Not even family members.
How’d I learn?
When I jovially put my arms around my French father-in-law who proceeded to just stand there like an animal playing dead, just waiting for his predator of a daughter-in-law to slink away. Ooops. I found out the hard way there’s no hugging in France.
Let’s take a closer look at hugging in France (or the lack thereof) and the French hug. GO!
Hugging in France:
Let me say this right out of the gate. You do not greet French people with a hug (unless it’s a child). There’s no French hug. Instead, you do cheek kisses, les bises. Sometimes it’s one on each cheek and depending on your social circle and region of France, you may go for 3 or 4 bises. But whatever you do, don’t go in for the hug like I did with my poor father-in-law. Hugging in France as a greeting doesn’t exist!
In fact, the French don’t even have a verb that means “to hug.” Well not in the same sense exactly.
How do you say hug in French? Well, the closest would be to simply “take someone in your arms” or prendre dans les bras or faire un câlin but it’s kind of a romantic gesture. Like a tender hug you do with a romantic interest. Or something you do with kids. Or maybe someone going through a really hard time to console them. But hugging in France is never used as a greeting.
The greeting is called “la bise” (pronounced kind of like bees in English” and consists of cheek kisses.
Here’s why you don’t hug a French person (and what to do instead):
They won’t know how to do it. Hugging in France is wayyyy less common.
Apart from what they see in the media, the French really aren’t skilled at the different types of hugging and have no clue when to use each for a greeting — but it’s not their fault! It’s not normal in French culture to hug, so if you attempt to hug a French person, they may get a little too close, too touchy-feely, might not know what to do with their hands or might just stand there like my poor father-in-law waiting for you to move on to the next unsuspecting Frenchie.
It’ll make them feel really awkward or embarrassed.
French adults don’t hug to say hi. Period. Not with their friends, not with colleagues and definitely not with casual acquaintances. Because they aren’t used to hugging in France, if you go in for a teddy bear hug or even a one-armed, half-assed “hey” kind of hug, they will be perplexed and probably just stand there. They’ll feel embarrassed — trust me. Or maybe they’ll reciprocate to be polite all the while thinking, “Damn this is weird.” Unless you are hugging a pervert. Which leads me to…
They might think it’s a come-on.
If you’ve recently met someone of the opposite sex and you greet them with a friendly hug, this person may think you’re trying to get close fast. As in romantically close. Maybe you are interested in this person or maybe not, but it paints the picture of you wanting to get close to them. Literally and figuratively. Hugging can be an intimate act. You press your body up against someone else’s, depending on the type of hug. This makes people who aren’t used to hugging quite uncomfortable. It’s the same for me when someone leans in for a bise! It’s oddly intimate at times because I’m just not used to doing this with people. I hug! (But I don’t hug in France.)
What to do instead of trying to do hug a French person:
You do quick cheek kisses, or faire la bise, instead of hugging in France to greet someone. Who do you do this with? Family, friends, sometimes colleagues and casual acquaintances you see often. Usually men don’t give each other bises unless they’re family or very close.
What side do you start on? Who the heck knows. I don’t think there’s a rule but just about all the time I start with a right cheek to right cheek.
Always follow the French person’s lead. It’s their country and they’re the masters of the French greeting. If they start to turn their head and scrunch their face, they’re coming at you for a bise, or cheek kiss or two. So if they lean in for a cheek kiss, do the same. And if you wear glasses like I do, it’s customary for one of you to remove your glasses so they don’t clink. I never do this because I’m lazy.
If they start to extend their hand instead, do the same and shake their hand to say hello.
Note that once you start to faire la bise with someone, you do it every time you see them. Not just once or now and then when you feel like it. It’s obligatory! More on la bise here.
Time to adapt. Just kiss me already.
I still find bisous a little awkward and would much rather hug, but hey there’s no hugging in France so I’ve adapted. And when we visit my family and friends in the U.S., Tom knows they’re going to hug him and he’s cool with it. He’s a professional hugger now.
Here though, aside from Tom’s family and my one French friend (who I cheek kiss sometimes when I’m feeling particularly French), I only faire la bise with two guys at the gym. One is the manager who I’ve become friendly with and the other is a nice guy who is always in the weight room at the same time as me. Aside from those select people, I just say bonjour. It’s not a romantic thing and is as simple as a quick hug. Peck and peck and done.
So bam, there’s your lesson on French culture for the day and all about hugging in French and French hugs. Don’t hug. Faire la bise. And everyone will live happily ever after.
What’s your experience been with hugging in France and bisous?
Photo credit: lanier67 / iW / CC BY-NC-ND
Photo credit: RayMorris1 / iWoman / CC BY-NC-ND
I don’t think I will ever get used to the fact that nobody hugs in France. I make the kids I live with give me hugs all the time because I miss being hugged (even though I was never someone that did it all the time, I like my space too) and they don’t seem to mind. Maybe it’d be a fun social experiment to go around hugging French people and see what they do…
Haha with my luck I’d probably meet every pervert in my town, so I’ll let you head up that social experiment 😉
I’m a French returning after a few years in North America and I miss giving hugs and being hugged so bad!!! I do not like the kissing thing, it feels awkward now, and kissing cheeks is definitely not the same as a good warm sincere friendly hug 🙂
I hug my son all the time, it’s a necessity for me 🙂 I wish there were free hugs demonstrations in the Limousin where we live now…
That’s interesting that hugging has become so commonplace for you that you actually miss it now that you’re in France! Hugging is great and I really do prefer hugs to bisous, but I’m American so it’s normal. Hugs really can feel sincere and heartfelt and I’m glad that you hug your son. Maybe we should start some free hug demonstrations!
Hugs are OK in some families. It depends.
Do it if you want and especially if you see it done. Otherwise, do what the French usually do. Two pecks on the cheek, one on each side.
Some families do four pecks, which is bothersome, but – what the hey! – who are you to spoil the fun by doing it only twice! ;^)
You might add to the greeting:
*On the left cheek, say “Salut Frederick!” (or whatever the name), and then
*On the right cheek, say “Ca va?”
If that does not spark a conversation then you’re not off to a good start. Most often, it does …
Well, I do. And I speak pretty-good French as well.
You’re text is right, however, hugging is “contextual”.
If somebody is abed or has been very sick, then a hug is worthwhile (to them as well). If you are seeing a sick-person, and everybody is hugging them, then you can as well. That is, it all depends upon the “circumstance”.
If you are meeting the French outside the house, then it’s to handshake. But doing-nothing upon meeting the French is a no-no. It really depends upon the circumstance. I would not hug any worker in a supermarket just because they told me where to find a product!
I don’t hug my doctor/dentist either. But, I do hug my mother-in-law because she likes a hug. I don’t hug my father-in-law unless he’s been visibly abed and is recovering. I don’t know why, but after a good many years in France the context of hugging becomes apparent (if you are looking at it contextually.)
Good hugging! Because it is the most friendly side of the French that you will ever “really see”. It kinda-sorta means contextually that you are an “accepted member of the family”. Yes, it is indeed considered that personal a sign of affection.
Reminds me of when my parents came to visit in October and met my brother and sister-in-law…it’s a good thing I gave them a quick rundown of the cheek kisses before we got there, especially since we do 4 kisses here. I could tell they felt really weird, and they kind of did a half hug along with the cheek kisses, probably out of habit lol, but I’m glad they got to experience such a truly French thing, even if it was a bit awkward 🙂
I think I still do the half hug w/the kisses. Where are we supposed to put our hands and arms during bisous? I really have no clue. But yes, very good that you gave them a little tutorial before they all met. And AHHH 4 bisous???
You needn’t really “hug”.
You can also take them by the shoulders, and kiss lightly both cheeks.
The French are really quite ambivalent about how it is done, but they will be very surprised if the greeting in this manner is not done.
It came easy to me, but I’m from an Italian-american family so it was no great surprise to me. In fact, I have cousins in Italy who will hug if they’ve not seen you in a while.
It is, to my mind, one of the more outstanding features of Latin cultures …
I’m Belgian, but we’re close to French people on that matter (NO hugging, tons of bises, even more than French people I think 😀 )
But I have a story with hugging! I lived in Japan, and my main teacher had lived for many years in the US. I will skip the details, but on one occasion she wanted to confort me and she gave me a hug. I just… froze, litteraly. I thought “wow, what’s that?! What am I supposed to do now?! When will it be over?! Please release me…. T_T”
Seriously, I didn’t like it at all, it made me so stressed up ha ha 😀
And by the way, there is a verb for “to hug”! It’s “étreindre”! 🙂
(And I’m not commenting much but I love your posts♥)
Thanks so much for sharing your story and commenting. So happy you like the posts… and stay tuned, hope to film a video with me totally botching your name for an upcoming post. You’ll like that!!
Asking Tom right now about etreindre. Never heard the word. Is it more common in Belgium? And oh man, I can just imagine you standing there frozen and stressed. Just like my father-in-law!!
I think my name is a nightmare for foreigners to pronounce correctly! My Japanese friends couldn’t pronounce it at all, and even my teachers called me by my nickname (Momoka) 😀 Can’t wait to see your video! (no way I’ll miss it, I receive your posts by email 😉 )
It’s weird for etreindre, I thought it was “Standard French”! I just checked and it’s in the Larousse dictionnary :
1) Serrer quelque chose, quelqu’un, le saisir fortement en l’entourant de ses membres, empoigner : Le malheureux étreignait désespérément la bouée.
2) Serrer quelqu’un dans ses bras pour l’embrasser ; enlacer : Il étreignait longuement son fils retrouvé.
3) En parlant d’un sentiment, serrer douloureusement ; oppresser, tenailler : L’émotion m’étreint.
Now that I read the whole definition, maybe etreindre is more “polite french” and “enlacer” would be the common way to say “to hug” 🙂
Ha ha yes I understand your father-in-law emotion all too well! 😀
So Tom said, “OH yeah, that does mean hug.” But it wasn’t the first thing that popped into his head. He said it sounds a little old fashioned. It’s weird because I’ve read other blogs about hugs in France and asked a few other French people and they told me there’s no real word for hugging aside from taking someone in your arms, prendre dans les bras and calin. Thank you for teaching me a new word!
What were you doing in Japan? I forget if you told me this story. Do you speak Japanese too?
I’m glad I was of help! 🙂
I was in Japan for one year to study at the Ochanomizu University thanks to the Monbusho scholarship. I have a Master Degree in Japanese studies so yeah I can speak it 😀
Somehow by reading your posts it reminds me about how I felt when I was in Japan… spending hours in supermarkets was definitely one of my favorite pastime! 😀
Haha, this beats me every time. As a Brazilian, I’m very huggy and it’s just weird not to greet people with a hug. I soon enough told my parents-in-law how we greet with Brazil and they actually adopted the idea with enthusiasm! So we now always greet with a hug.
Yesterday was our rentrée at college, and a schoolmate actually greeted me with a hug. It was my time to freeze and not know how to react! There are rare French people who can greet with a hug, I guess.
OOooh you found the one French person that hugs! Maybe he/she lived abroad or knew you were Brazilian and that it was more natural for you? Who knows. If we ever meet, Anita, I’ll give you a hug — none of that bisous nonsense. 😉
She did live abroad, in Canada and Romania, and I guess that explains it. It warmed my heart up — I missed greeting people with a hug!
Haha, in Brazil, depending on the person we’re greeting we actually greet with hugs AND bisous! But I never cared much for bisous… That’s one of the reasons I enjoyed living in the US — hugs for all! 😀
Ahh, I think this is the most awkward part of the french culture. I totally understand the thing about faire la bise, but once you become a part of it is quite confusing (and a trap to awkward situations for an expat….)
Haha yes, it is awkward. Where do you put your arms during the bise? But I guess it’s just as awkward as a hug for a French person. Practice makes perfect I guess so I’ll keep at it. 😉
Marissa Tejada says
Hi Diane, Your post came up on my phone while I was having a French dinner with my French friends here in Greece! It sparked a very funny conversation. Great post. AND I asked my friend for a hug before she left LOL 😉
Oh wow, perfect timing! So what were your friends’ thoughts on hugging? Do they live in Greece, been there awhile too? Hope that goodbye hug went OK. Do Greeks hug to say hi/bye?
Marissa Tejada says
Yes, my French friends live here now for a few years each but they are from France. They totally agree that hugging is a strange thing for them. The goodbye hug attempt by me was a silly joke– he he. They are used to such things by me. Anyway, she refused and we giggled about it. Greeks do not hug either. They totally prefer the cheek kisses!
Miss Angie says
Great article! I’m learning French and LOVE learning more and more about the culture and the people.
Found you through your ad on A Peek at Karen’s World, and I’m a new follower! 😀
Awesome, so happy to have you here! How long have you been studying French? And have you been to France yet?
I have pretty much gotten my French in laws and family used to my hugging. My mother in law was the proverbial frozen post the first time i hugged her, which was the first time we met, prior to her daughter and I geting married. Being Italian and Spanish we have always hugged in my family and friends. It is a sure way of freaking out people you’ve just met though. Usually my wife will warn her friends about my habit, lol. At least they are not scared of me anymore.
Hahha, glad I’m not the only one who scared a new family member. And it’s very nice of your wife to warn her friends!
I’m French, I used to live in the States and I miss being hugged. Sometimes I kinda want to hug my friends to greet them but it feels awkward. Kisses are hard to get used to again whenever I come back from the US. Maybe I need Americans friends in France so we can hug. haha
I miss hugs too! Sometimes I don’t want someone up in my face for a bise. You can come hug me hahaha is that weird?
And we have to adapt the reverse way! 🙂
That’s kind of you to offer, JF, but I think if you’re French and in France, it’s us Americans who need to adapt to you! 😉 Although the occasional hug would be cool. Have a great weekend!
I have always briefed our American friends not to hug while visiting us in Brittany. It has never worked 🙂 I will always picture my husband freezing on the railway platform where we were welcoming them for the first time in France years ago.. He was so embarrassed 😉 Didn’t know what to do with that big guy spilling all over him. It reminds me of Kerry spilling himself on our President this week 🙂 I had told my husband beforehand what would happen but as he didn’t take any notice he felt more than awkward and ended up saying to me those guys were weirdos 🙂 Ever since, when we go to the States or if our friends visit us, he gets ready for it , and our friends get ready for a handshake or 3 kiss on the cheeks ( 3 here) 😉 😉 As for me, I find it our saluting very funny 😉
Hi Marie, thanks for sharing your experience. It really can be embarrassing, hugging or any other cultural “norm”, when one party isn’t expecting it. I’ve made all kinds of mistakes at the dinner table, in speech and hugging, but hugging really is a big one I always tell my American friends to NOT do when they come to France. Thanks again
Nice read. L’art de la bise for the uninitiated 🙂 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b9m0OEpE0z8
Thank you! That’s such a cute video, will share it in an upcoming post
Luis K. says
What terrified me was your remark that ‘Note that once you start to faire la bise with someone, you do it every time you see them. Not just once or now and then when you feel like it. It’s obligatory!’.
It reminded me of when I was attached to a prefecture, in the South shall we say, and, every evening at 1900hrs, staff met with M. le Prefet/M. le Commissaire… to coordinate the following day’s festivities. Having a very poor memory, I can very nearly remember the pained expression on the face of one chap in the line-up before the fireplace, whose hand I attempted to shake as I passed along the line. Alas, we had already met and shaken hands that day and a second handshake clearly reflected what an inadequate impact the first encounter had made (on me). I would be in terrible trouble remembering with whom a bise had been established as the customary greeting.
My prefectural exploits did not end there: one day I accompanied M. le Chef de Cabinet to review the fire brigade Etat Major Departemental, all lined up and all hands shaken by MlCdeC. Alas, being a shaken handshaker already, and a retiring type, I unerringly felt my relative unimportance in this ceremony and hung back, only to find MlCdeC at the far end of the line. I then had to demonstrate my moseying skills in front of the assembled brigade to rejoin him at other end of the line-up, so we could be entertained to lunch.
Hi Luis, thanks for your comment! I think we’ve all had “oops” moments like you describe. Even in the US, I’ve said “nice to meet you” to people I’ve already met, or not recognized someone out of context or when they wear glasses (normally don’t), etc. It’s just that much more mortifying when it’s in our “new” culture, right? Or maybe we get a pass. haha I don’t know. But I feel your pain. I don’t know how French people remember who they faire la bise with and who they shake hands with and all the rules to go along w/the greetings. Are you still in France?
Luis K. says
No longer in France, hélas, hélas, trois fois hélas. I’m hoping to get back for a few weeks some time this century.
I am fascinated by cultural differences, including spending a week with a sister who with most of her family has now been in Chicago or thereabouts for over 20 years, so both of your contrasting expectations are of interest.
I look forward to your addressing the baise-main. I recall attending a wine evening (family vineyard) in Paris to which we had been invited by our children’s school friends’ parents (still with me?), where it was clear from the way women’s hands were extended and the response of most men arriving, that a baise-main was the way to go and the response of foreigners was being tested.
I have to say that I’ve never had anyone kiss my hand or even seen that. Not sure it’s really done? Or at least not in my social circle 😉
Luis K. says
This was 35 years ago :-).
my god, I laughed so hard picturing your poor father in law.
You understand us very well, it is exactly that !
Thank you for checking out the post! Thank goodness I’ve learned a lot since I tried to hug my father-in-law 😉
Phoebe @ Lou Messugo says
You’ve got it pretty spot on Diane! Though I have to say that my French husband hugs his brother and some of his oldest friends in what I consider a very American way, with slaps on the back etc. None of them have lived in the States but they are from Lorraine. I wonder if that’s the difference? And when it comes to la bise I can guarantee that I always go for the wrong side to start even after 17 years in France! Thanks for linking up again, I’m really enjoying your blog. #AllAboutFrance
Thank you for hosting the linkup and so glad you enjoyed the post. Yes, I’ve seen very close family members hug here and there but usually after someone dies, like to console them. Maybe it depends on the person/family for that sort of thing. Have a wonderful afternoon!
I loved this post! Every English person travelling to France should read it. You quite simply DO NOT HUG the French! They all find it so awkward, probably as awkward as everyone here finds les bises I enforce on them wherever I go, haha!
Thank you! Yes, I find bises a bit awkward but I only do them with my in-laws and two people at the gym. So I’ve gotten used to it and know it’s something I only do with those people, so I can prepare myself ahead of time. I usually go left first (so touch my right cheek to their) and I haven’t missed and kissed anyone on the lips yet. I do notice that in the US, older people within families seem to like cheek kisses. Usually just one and sometimes it’s accompanied by a hug. Thanks for your comment! Going to check out your flourless cake now
In a similar vein, I am a little surprised every single time someone signs off a text with “bises” or even “bisous”. I know we don’t sign off with “hugs” but I always feel a little bit embarassed, as if they have proposed marriage…
Yes, that can look a little weird at first. Even in English, I never say hugs. But I totally know what you mean! On the phone too, bisous before they hang up.
Chris Brown says
I wasn’t much of a hugger when I lived in England, apart from my kids, but since I’ve moved here I’ve grown to love the hug. Almost exclusively because my circle of friends have now accepted me so much that even the men kiss me!!
That’s great to hear! Are you a guy or girl? Thank you for checking out the post. 😉
Christy Swagerty says
So many funny experiences with hugs and bises, it’ll never get old! I think incoming expats to France can really benefit from your experiences and explanations! You’re lucky to have a French husband who will take the time to explain things to you, too – my American husband and I just tend to wing it most of the time! He hates the bises, and will stick out his hand to force the handshake with most people. I’m a lost cause, as I want to hug all of my French friends when I haven’t seen them in a long time, and want to bise all my American friends when they give me gifts! Just do both, I say! 😀
Thank you, yes, Tom is majorly helpful for a lot of things, especially navigating little cultural differences. He’s a pro hugger now but the first few times he met my family he definitely felt weird. I know what you mean about forcing the handshake. If you take charge from the start by offering a hand, you can eliminate any awkwardness, so I like that method! And yah, why not bise and hug? hahah
A minefield! We don’t really hug in Australia either I don’t think,. It is more common these days to kiss on one cheek, but old people still shake hands (or stand off and wave if you are from the country … only kidding). Interesting to read the comments about Japan – I worked there for a Japanese company. I started to feel uncomfortable when foreigners would come and try to shake hands. Everyone is much more relaxed when they can stand apart and bow.
Hi Sally, I didn’t know that about Australia. Yes, Aurore’s insight into Japan is fascinating and I agree with you. It’s easier to be relaxed when there’s a physical distance between people. Thanks for checking out the post!
Cathy Sweeney says
Uh oh. I’m racking my brain to remember if I’ve ever hugged a French person, not knowing that it was a faux pas. I’m pretty sure that I’ve followed the lead of the French when I meet them. I’m OK with bises (in fact, like them), so I’m probably safe. Left or right is a good question. I’ve been starting with the left and it’s worked out so far.
That’s an excellent strategy. You can never go wrong if you follow the French person’s lead. I go left too and so far so good!
Rosie @Eco-Gites of Lenault says
I am still completely confused about how many kisses I am supposed to give and to whom but, like you, say, I tend to follow the lead of the French person I am greeting. What I found hard was when a really good French friend of mine was very upset and it the UK I would have consoled her with a hug. Here I couldn’t and that was hard for me … but no doubt perfectly acceptable for her. #AllAbout France
Annabelle Barrett says
I was an exchange student in France for a couple weeks last summer and the bises took some getting used to! When I first met my host family I hugged my host mom and she took it very well and didn’t say anything about it. Which made it more surprising when host dad went to give me greeting kiss and totally scared me! (I should have researched more!) From then on, when we all meet up with their many friends he would start laughing as I awkwardly kissed ten or more people XD A couple people even politely took their glasses off before a bise so I would clank mine with theirs! Thanks for the lovely and hilarious post!
Ahhh yes the glasses clanking!! My father-in-law always takes his off so they don’t clank with mine and I never take mine off haha. I figure let the French person lead the way with that. I still find it awkward, Do we touch cheeks, sides of the face, make a fake air kiss, who takes the glasses off, etc. Would much rather hug!! What part of France did you live in? Thanks so much for checking out the post. 😉
Gustavo Domínguez says
I’ve always wondered though, what do French people think or say out loud when they see Americans hugging all the time on TV and even print media in a non romantic way. Are they grossed out by it? Can you shed some info on this?
Solane Genevaux says
I don’t know about every french people, but nobody I know thinks it’s weird that american people hug all the time, it’s just their thing ! ^^
Maybe it’s because we live in the south of France, but my family and friends are quite touchy-feely, and we bear-hug all the time. We just don’t do it with strangers or poeple we don’t know very well.
And for all the ones who don’t know what to do with their arms while cheek-kissing, just put one or both your hands on the other’s shoulders ! At least that’s my way of doing it 😀
I’ve just read your post , in fact I’ve never heard anything at all, I suppose we, french take it as something people do period . For my part when I see people hugging I think ” ol how tender this gesture is ! ” its in fact moving.
And also why aren’t we french capable of showing as much loving.on the hand we are very closeknit families and get together a lot . Our Love is shown in having long moments eating around the table sharing our joys and sadness . With friends we are more reserved and meet them just for the fun and play practical jokes all the time , but if a friend is in need then we are there for support of course. On the whole we don’t mix family and friends . Hugging in France implies romance only .
I’d to add to Gustavo that if hugging is not out of tenderness for s.o then
i.d rather kiss on cheeks , hugging is too much intimate unless its a very light hug
Contrary to Solane, I am not from the south but from the northern half of France, where people are much more reserved about chatting and touching other people. I don’t really know how it is in the south, but in the north, you don’t always “kiss” women and men rather shake hands even when they are friends, or just say “hello”. We never do ‘bises’ on formal occasions, like meeting our boss or colleagues that are not close friends.
I have never found it gross or strange to see Americans hugging each other in a friendly manner on TV series, although I don’t remember seeing them hugging people that are not friends. I guess that would feel strange to me. When Americans hug each other, it seems normal to them, therefore it seems normal to me.
Seeing it is fine, but doing it is quite different ! I was hugged one or twice by Anglo-Saxon people I knew and that was really awkard. I just stood there like Diane’s father-in-law, was extremely embarrassed, tried to hug back, didn’t know how to do it and wondered all along how I was supposed to react although I tried not to show it !
When it is done by men, it adds to the embarrassment because this is really close contact : actually, nobody hugs me except my fiancé.
‘Bises’ are much less close because the only part of our bodies that meet is our cheeks. We don’t actually kiss people : we just approach our ckeeks from one another while making a kissing noise. Applying one’s lips to another person’s cheek would be a ‘bisou’ and we generally do that to children we know. That would feel strange to some children to be kissed by strangers.
Ok the post is old, but maybe I can clarify for some people if they this comment : the rules of “la bise” are local. In Paris I usually start on the right, but in Marseille it’s the opposite. In some parts of France they kiss 3 times, in some only one. Even us have to follow the lead of the locals all the time :p
Very true ! In my mother’s family who is from Normandy, people always kiss twice, but my father who is from Picardy does it four times.
Hi, great post! Your comment about French people taking it romantically made me laugh. It reminded me of the Michel Thomas French language series when he’s explains subjunctives; ‘you never say I want you in French. If you say I want you, they think you mean it.’
I have become very close with a French guy. I knew not to hug French strangers. He just came back from where he lives, so I tried to hug him today. I thought we were close enough for him to cope with that, but he just stood there. So, lesson learned. Even if you are very close, hugging is still not acceptable haha!
All the more so if you are not the same sex ! 😀
As Diane wrote, contact so close takes another meaning… 😉
Hello! I’m a teenage girl and I will be going on an exchange type trip to France over the summer. I was wondering if it would be in place to “faire la bise” with my exchange family the first time I meet them. Will it seem awkward or is it wrong to go from a teenager to an adult? Thanks.
Hi Olivia, Yes, you should absolutely get prepared to faire la bise with your exchange family! That is what will come naturally for them to do. Keep in mind, that you won’t know in advance what cheek they start on or how many to do. Some people do 2 kisses (Parisians, in particular), and in the south they do 3 or 4. If there is a exchange program director, he or she may also greet you upon arrival, in which case you would faire la bise with that person too. As a female teenager, you will likely faire la bise with your French family, their extended family, teenagers or children you meet to spend time with, the parents of your teenage friends, etc. People you would not faire la bise with: a doctor, a store clerk, hotel staff, etc. As a female, you will faire la bise with both men and women (of any age). Males will shake hands between males, but males and females font les bises.
Bon courage! 😀
after living in france for 4 months i got used to la bise… so much so that when a friend from home (ontario, canada) came to visit and greeted me at the airport with a hug, i actually got uncomfortable. i worked at a bar in paris and it was common that anytime a coworker arrived, they would give bisous to everyone there, but not upon leaving
Yep, I’ve just had an awkward moment when i went to see my cousins in Edinburgh last week, i’m a french guy and we diden’t see each others since 20 years, so when it came to greetings we started to shake hands…not enough, to formal, so we approach and one wanted to hug and the other to kiss, so we awkwardly done half of each 🙂
Jennifer S says
I had NO idea! but now I do, and its probably a good thing since I hope to travel/live/work in France for a few months at some point in the next few years!
Sometimes younger people are more open to hugs and see them in American films but it’s definitely not the standard greeting!
Joelle AMILCAR says
As a French person who has lived in the Uk for 10 yrs , I learned that you handshake s.o when being introduced only . With girl friends you may give a quick hug and and a good bye kiss . When I returned to France I disliked Handshaking all the time to say hi and good bye and avoided it . As for ” faire la bise” it is the custom with your family, relatives and friends
Where I live in Normandie now we kiss twice ( one kiss on each cheek)
As regards hugging , it’s not done because it’s not our culture and I for one , would’nt like to be pressed against another body as it is too intimate even with our own family , as said in other posts above . When an American friend of mine living in France hugged me , I was really embarrassed at first but soon got used to it but always keep a certain distance. Of course It is a question of cultures , but what I find strange is the fact that kissing or hugging are both viewed as intimate by each culture. For my part I’d rather kiss a cheek than having my chest being pressed. The French word for hug is “accolade ” “etreindre ” seems to me
very intimate . Although the word ” embrasser” meaning kissing is in fact hugging , since it means taking s.o in your arms. em= in and bra=arm
( in arms). other définition anyone?
My experience is quite the opposite. I’m from South America. I went to college in US, and to my standard Americans hugs seemed to fake and cold to me. In fact, I struggle that most of the time they would completely ignore saying hi and making eye contact. Years later I married a French and I was bothered by having too much hugs (and off course kisses) from her family! They are from the south of France. And all my wife’s friends love hugging.
Even once, when I was visiting Ales, I saw some French holding free hugs signs and giving hugs at the local market!
Hi there, Cris! I think there are cold people everywhere and I’m sorry people ignored you. I know how that feels (happens to me in France a lot). The French greeting in general though is to faire la bise and not hug to say hi so that’s one cultural difference I wanted to make people aware of. Among family, some I guess do hug — like yours! — but you wouldn’t hug my French boss to say thanks for a gift or anything. That’s cool you saw some free hugs signs! Merry Christmas to you! xx
Hi Cris, I guess it depends where you were in the States too. I live in the South, and in my area everyone uses hugs. You meet a person twice and instantly you are on a hugging basis. It shocked me at the beginning, especially if, for example, my financial advisor hugs me in front of his secretary… Awkward!!!
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So interesting! Enjoyed reading your post- may come handy when I visit France next year! 🙂
So happy you enjoyed it! Have a great trip — what area(s) are you visiting?
Thinking of going to Grenoble, where my friend lives. Hope nothing will spoil the plans! 🙂
I hear it’s a great city. Enjoy!
I grew up in London and hugging was not part of the culture. One kiss on the cheek was acceptable with friends and family, a handshake for acquaintances. When I moved to America and encountered the hugging culture it was awful to me. I didn’t much mind men hugging me, and even some of them I wanted to keep at arms length, but other women hugging me was the worst thing. A rather large friend would envelop me and I froze. She rather got the message and stopped. I cringed every time a woman would want to hug me. I was there 24 years and never got used to it. Coming to France where they touch cheeks felt right to me, it is friendly but not too intimate. I really like that the children are brought up to greet adults. Our grandson came here as a seven year old and now, a teenager, he naturally shakes hands with all the men and kisses the women without any embarrassment or urging from us. He learnt that at school, where on entering the teachers were waiting for the children, the female teachers kissed the children and the male shook hands with them.
Jennifer Piercy says
I teach French 1 in 8th grade in the US. You can imagine the laughter and giggles when we talk about la bise with kids this age!! Your article was so perfect and gave me such great insight on things I can share with them (I have never lived in France, just studied).
Thanks so much for sharing this fun culture difference! It really helped me a lot!!!!
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I am currently studying abroad in France. I have one more month left and I miss hugging so much. I’m not a person whose love language is touch but I didn’t realize how much hugging meant to me. The bisous are okay if they initiate it. I never know when to do the kisses so it can sometimes be awkward. The first time me and a guy did a bisous I thought he was going in for a hug so I half hugged him until I quickly realized my mistake. I pulled my arm away very quickly. I loved this blog piece it was very insightful and helpful to know I’m not alone in this lol.
Faux Paus Expert says
Oh how I wished I had read your informative post before my trip to France, I’m a big hugger – I even hug my bosses on their birthdays! My friend and I went to a music festival there recently and it was our first time in France. The security agent there were so kind and helpful when I lost my phone and really took a lot of trouble to help me to find it in the huge crowd. He didn’t have to, they were all just really nice guys. I was almost hysterical because my boarding passes, credit card details, everything was on that phone. When he returned it to me I was so relieved I said “Can I give you a hug?”, and he looked mortified but later after the festival when I thanked him again he was like what the hell and let me hug him, so I gave him a big bear hug. I am beyond mortified to read that it is considered a come-on in France!!