Kissing: even the French get it wrong!

Stiff upper lip is no match for the problem of the bise

29 January 2020
How many kisses ... and which cheek first?
By Connexion journalist

A kiss is just a kiss, according to the old song – but for many foreigners (and even French people moving to a different region) a bise is anything but.

It can be a minefield.

Whether you give one, two, three or four – or even five for some people in Corsica – can be just the start of it. You must also start on the correct cheek.

So that friendly greeting can be a bit nerve-wracking.

Sorbonne Université linguist Mathieu Avanzi said there are several layers of complication.

“First, you must decide if you know the person well enough to give them a kiss – and whether they feel they know you well enough... that’s delicate!

“Then there is the choice of cheek. You may both offer different cheeks and risk bumping heads... or just dither.

“After that is how many kisses to give and even if it is a real ‘smack’ in the air or a pressing of cheeks. Two kisses is the most common and seems to be the way young people are going.

“Finally, it is not such a big problem but some people keep the bise for certain occasions, such as new year, however there are also those who do it only for bonjour or au revoir.

“And yes, French people also have problems with it.”

But while most Britons think the bise is a traditionally French thing, it has a much wider spread. It is common in southern Europe, whether Catholic or Orthodox, and as far as Russia, even reaching into some Arab countries and Africa.

Its history is lost for lack of reliable sources but Mr Avanzi, who has written a book on language changes (Parlez-vous (les) Français? Armand Colin) said it was known in the Middle Ages but then banned – and later accepted again.

Similarly, while it is now common to see men giving the bise, it held a stigma until not so long ago except inside families.

Mr Avanzi said a Canadian colleague told him that when he was young in Quebec, people wished “Happy new year” to family with a kiss on the lips.

“It is the same in Russia for saying bonjour, although that is changing with thoughts of homosexuality. It is now rarer.” 

The fact that people who share the same language have different ways of speaking has fascinated him most of his life.

“I am still fascinated by the fact you can cross a political border and habits change. Take the boat from Geneva in Switz­erland to Thonon in France and you go from three bises to two.”

These things also happen with the name: it is called a bécot in Suisse Nor­mande, baise in Bel­gium, boujou in Nor­mandy and in some Germanic parts of east France, schmoutz (the origin of the English word “smack”).

However, young people are changing habits... so in areas where four kisses is common, this is being done mostly by the over-50s. Younger people have opted for two.

Obviously, there is a funny side and British comedian Paul Taylor got a hit with a video on the bise that has had more than 3.2million views on You­Tube (tinyurl.com/wgaskaq).

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