It’s only natural to feel a little embarrassed when someone points out a mistake you’ve been making. Whether it’s an error you’ve been making at work or in your personal life, you can’t help but get a little red-faced. But something as simple as French cheek kisses? How hard can they be? Well, they’re more complicated than they seem. For the past 4 years or so, I thought I was doing a pretty OK job when it came to cheek kisses. I did my best to lean in, tap both cheeks, and I even made the little sound. But after a routine bise last night with someone at the gym, I was politely told my bisous technique was off. Ouch.
Schooled on my bisous technique
I think the whole concept of bisous is a pain the butt. Truth be told, I’d rather hug. This video pretty much sums up a foreigner’s frustration with this quintessential French greeting — and I wholeheartedly relate. But when in France, you do like the French so I’ve done my best to faire la bise just like the rest of ’em. My close circle of bisous-receiving people extends to my in-laws, niece and nephew, and three people I know from the gym. That’s it. I’m comfortable with that number and thought I was nailing it every time!
Of that group, I was pretty proud of myself for having these three gym people (one of whom is an employee) who I cheek-kiss with. We started doing the bise after a year of faithfully seeing each other in the weight room. They were more than just strangers at this point and I thought my technique was just as good as anyone else’s. We’re talking about cheek kisses here and not rocket science. But, oh, how wrong I was.
One of the gym employees who’s about the same age as me told me after our obligatory bise last night that apparently mine are not positioned right and the part of the face that touches when I do it is too close to the ear. Ah, bon? T’es serieux? He was. I wanted to disappear and take my red face with me.
He was very nice about it but I couldn’t help but feel mortified. He explained my timing was good, my little sound was good too but the position was off. He told me that the part of the cheek that needs to make contact is a bit closer to the mouth. I wasn’t bisous-ing anyone’s ear, to be clear, and I really didn’t think my technique was off but I guess I do reach in a little too much making the positioning fall a little further up the face than what is “normal.” Oh man, my face started to sweat just hearing about my faux pas. I really hope he’s the only one who noticed this.
I took in what he had to say, was grateful for the tips, and will do a better job going forward. I’ll see him tonight and hopefully will get it right.
Then, I gave him some context explaining why my bisous technique might be off:
- I’m not French and didn’t grow up learning the technique. Kids that can barely walk already know how to faire la bise. It’s engrained in French culture from Day 1.
- I don’t faire la bise with many people. As I mentioned above, my circle of bisous trust is very small so I don’t have much practice (and didn’t really think I needed any). In this case, I guess practice does make perfect.
- I wear glasses and I hate having to readjust them after a hard bise (my father-in-law does more of a face smack thing that always leaves me readjusting my glasses). Picky and weird, I know, but I’m sure I subconsciously position myself in a way as to not move my glasses around too much.
- It feels weirdly intimate. People say hugs feel intimate but if you just do a quick one-armed hug and just bend at the waist (keeping space in between the two bodies), it’s way less intimate than a cheek kiss! My other bise hangup is if you get too close to the mouth of the other person (move in too fast or go for the wrong side), you may accidentally kiss someone. OK, irrational fear but seriously touching your face to someone else’s can be a major invasion of personal space. You can feel them breathe and know what kind of gum they’re chewing. Instinctively maybe I lean in a little further to keep the bise closer to the ear (and also because with a hug, we naturally step into the motion) and away from the mouth to prevent accidental kisses. Maybe my way feels less intimate. I don’t know.
So my tip? Just lean forward, offer your cheek and wait for the French person to tap your cheek and make contact. That way they’re in control of the placement. 😉
OK, going to leave it there. Have a wonderful weekend. I’m off to practice bisous with Dagny.
Crikey, this bloke sounds a bit full-on! Surely it’s not that important? If it’s on the cheek somewhere, it should be good enough and he must have known you are not French. I did la bise with a man I hadn’t seen for decades recently and didn’t even think about it…I certainly wasn’t aiming for a precise centimetre. Lol. What did Tom say about this guy’s reaction?
I’m sure Dagny will be much more appreciative of your bise. Have a good weekend.
It did seem a little weird to me too because like I said I wasn’t touching ears. And it takes two to bisous so he was at fault for the placement as much as I was! Tom said he never noticed any issues with my cheek kisses but since we don’t bisous each other, he couldn’t be sure. He gets back from skiing today so I’ll practice on him. 😉
Omg, now I’m really paranoid about my bise-ing. Usually my biggest stress is when to do it – like I know that when I see certain friends or family we obviously do the bise, but what about with people I see semi-regularly at work, or if I’m confronted with a group and some of them I know well enough to bise but others I don’t? Or at parties when some people go around bise-ing every last person in the room and other people just wave hello? Super awkward.
Judy Arginteanu says
I always took comfort in the fact that even my French friends said they couldn’t always keep track of etiquette or know exactly the right number etc. 🙂
Exactly, there are so many rules that sometimes the French don’t even know everything!
So I take it you haven’t kissed somebody on the lips yet! I seem to always get awkward on which side to start and then heads bob around and you end up smacking on the lips. But I see it happens to the French too (often when people are coming from different regions and have different habits (which side first and the number of kisses). This happened on The Voice not long ago when Mika ended up kissing another on the mouth (practically).
Thank goodness no! I usually go right cheek to right cheek first unless it’s clear the person is going for my left. I think if I kissed someone, I’d just tell people I’m sick to avoid them all the time! I feel better that Mika had a faux pas, and his was on national TV!
I can’t believe the guy had the cheek to tell you about this!! I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing la bisous myself but I applaud you for giving it your best!
I found it really weird too! It’s not like I was touching his ear. I mean more or less if you touch someone’s cheek, it’s a bise, end of story. He knows me pretty well, see him every time I go to the gym so I guess he felt he could bust on me a little. But it made me a little self-conscious. Thanks for your support!
No can’t say I have had such an experience but I can say that I feel your embarrassment
Lucky, I’m sure you’d be a pro ;-)!
This made me laugh. I didn’t know there were proper ways to “faire la bise”. My circle of bisous-people is fairly large, primarily because there’s a lot of people at church, plus my husband’s family is HUGE. I have found that people faire la bise all different ways, ranging from lightly brushing someone’s cheek to my husband’s uncle, who does the full-on smack on your cheek with the loudest noise ever. Aside from figuring out which side to start on (and how many), when I am with people from other regions, I prefer it over hugging. I’m not a huge fan of physical touch, and hugs are a bit too much for me. A light brush of the cheek works for me!
I have yet (knock on wood) to get someone on their lips, but then again, I also lightly touch their shoulder’s to stabilize myself. Not sure if that is entirely appropriate, but I’d say it’s much more appropriate than accident kissing your brother-in-law!
Me neither! I figured as long as I was touching cheek to cheek, pausing for a sec and then doing the other one — managing to not kiss by accident — that I was doing just fine! I think I’d hyperventilate if I had a big bisous circle. I have a weird thing with people touching my face in any capacity probably relating to a TMJ disorder I have. So yea the hard smack is not fun. And I like that you brought up the point that people faire la bise all different ways (kind of like a handshake or hug variation). There’s no one RIGHT way.
Glad you haven’t kissed anyone yet either! I’ve put my hand on the shoulder too. I hope that’s normal. I will have to watch French people. Now I’m second guessing everything! Thx for sharing your experience. 😉
Lillian @ The Smalls Abroad says
I agree 100% – it’s not easy! And I know I’m making faux-pas it’s just no one has said anything yet. The worst is when I smack my cheekbones against someone else’s because I clearly don’t have great spacial orientation. I usually put a hand on their shoulder to get some context and see how far/close I’m getting.
I HATE the cheekbone smack. My father-in-law is notorious for hard-bisousing and I get anxious knowing that I’ll have to bisous him when he comes over. It hurts!
Agnès B. says
Coucou ! tu sais, pour nous, le hug est très intime parce que, finalement, on presse notre poitrine contre l’autre, et ça nous gêne beaucoup plus que la joue hihi ! merci, continue tes articles c’est super !!
Oui, je comprends et le hug etait bizarre pour Tom au debut avec ma famille. Mais maintenant, c’est normal pour lui. Merci ! 😉
OMG! This article is so going to make me super self-concious about bise-ing skills. Though lik you said, I think as long as people understand you’re not french, they shouldn’t hold you down t much on your fair la baise moments (I hope they don’t in my case).
Awww, don’t stress about the bise. I think the guy at the gym was just being annoying and it’s no big deal about the bise placement. He was just being a stickler because he knows I’m foreign. Just do the best you can. Honestly, any type of bise is better than a hug!!
Oh my, this is a great anecdote though I’m sure it was absolutely no fun for you to get your technique pointed out.
My take on his behavior is that some French people absolutely love to criticize others whenever they can because they think it makes them look like an expert on the matter.
The worst part is they actually imagine you’re grateful for being constantly corrected!
The only way I came up with to battle “know-it-alls” is to use gentle teasing or to ask tons of questions so that it’s clear that I’m not ashamed of myself for being ignorant, just curious and light about it all.
Luckily, I haven’t been on the receiving end of too much criticism although people have told me the French seem to do this a lot. Your suggestion is great — just kill them with questions to prove their “expertise.” Hahah!