I figured that anyone coming to France would have learned about the French cheek kiss.
“They fair the what?” my family asked me in unison.
Evidently, I was wrong. I explained to my mother, father, and brother that instead of shaking hands at a first meeting, the French kiss one another on the cheek.
My family immediately started to panic. The look on their faces said, "they do WHAT with perfect strangers?"
I further explained that it isn’t actually cheek kissing. You simply touch cheek-to-cheek, while simultaneously making a kissy noise. I then proceeded to demonstrate.
“And the men do this too?” my father asked, a little weary.
I told him that between men it is a little bit more complicated. Between friends they usually faire la bise, but not always. I further explained that since I wasn’t a boy, I hadn’t had to deal with this, as woman pretty much always get the bise.
To my father and brother’s content, the husband of the French family shook their hands, but everybody else faire-la-bise-d. For both hello and goodbye.
Afterwards, my family told me they were super stressed about doing it wrong.
This is a feeling I can relate to. Even today I’m unsure sometimes about to bise or not to bise.
Lucky for everyone, I have found an instructional video made by Nikola Obermann aimed at foreigners for how to faire la bise! Unfortunately for us foreigners, the video is in French. Not to worry, however, I've offered my own translation.
The French say, "as simple as hello!" when referring to something that is easy. As simple as hello? There is nothing more complicated than saying "hello" in France, especially for foreigners! This is because, in France, who don't just say "hi" or shake hands, we faire la bise! And to faire la bise is actually an art form...
[The rest of the translation]
Those who didn't learned to faire la bise at a very young age, like French children (go ahead! Kiss your Aunt Géraldine!), often feel uneasy about it.
A little bit embarrassed, foreigners tend to lean forward with perked lips, not daring to move their arms, for fear of unwelcome touching. They don't know which side to start on and are unsure about whether you're supposed to actually kiss the cheek or just kiss the air.
Don't laugh! Poor foreign exchange students often feel this way when meeting with their host family. Suddenly, everybody wants to kiss them!
In order to faire la bise, there are four questions you must ask!
When? Who? How? and How many?
When: meeting up for free time, in the morning at work, and always at friends' houses.
The amount of time spent kissing is proportional to the amount of friends already at the party. If there are already 15 people there, you might die of hunger before getting to eat any of the snacks!
Foreigners who are used to just saying "hello" with a wave might find this a bit tiresome.
Who: You must consider whether they are family, friends, or coworkers, and their age and their social status.
For example, you do not faire la bise with your boss. You must do it, however, if your boss starts it. But, you always faire la bise with colleagues.
Between men, it gets a bit more complicated. They usually faire la bise when they are friends or are members of the same family, but not always.
Young people faire la bise all the time, even the boys!
How: To faire la bise immediately creates a level of intimacy. It's similar to animal sniffing, yet can also be a good way to start flirting with someone. The intensity, the length, and the conviction we put into la bise are up for grabs. You must decide based on personal preference. If you don't know the other person very well, it is advisable to act with reserve.
How many: Ah! We have finally arrived at the numbers problem.
Parisians do 2. In Montpellier, they do 3. In other regions, they do 4.
When we do not know where a person is from, it can be embarrassing if they wanted a third kiss, and we only planned on doing two!
But I have noticed that even French people do not know how many bise are done in all the different regions of France.
Why do people from the same region give different responses when asked how many times they should kiss?
It is a problem of social status. In France, there is still a distinction between the social classes. In a nutshell, the upper class do only two bise where as the lower classes do four.
So as you can see, this makes it awfully difficult for foreigners to understand the intricacies of faire la bise. I think that we should create a map that shows how many kisses we do per region, including how many we do based on social class, so that they will know how many kisses they need to do during their stay in France.
It would be great for tourism!