I’m fascinated by the differences in how people greet each other in different countries. What can be a show of affection among friends in one country, can signal an amorous advance in another.
Monique from France (of Mama Lisa’s World en français) came to visit me and my family earlier this month. While my husband and I waited for her to arrive at the airport, I remembered my days living in France. There, when people first see each other they faire la bise, which means “do the kiss”. The most common way to faire la bise is one kiss on each cheek. I clued my husband in on this custom. He was surprised and said, “Well, at least she’s a woman!”
When first meeting someone here in the US, at least in New York, most people will shake hands. Some women don’t follow this custom, but most younger women do. Most people in the business world shake hands when meeting a business associate – whether for the first time, or even if they’ve met before. But if two people work in the same office, they generally wouldn’t shake hands every day.
If you’re greeting a person you know, like a friend who you’ve seen recently, you’d probably just say hi. If it’s a family member, you might kiss them once on the cheek. If it’s a friend or family member who you haven’t seen for a while (or might not see again for a while) you might give them a kiss and an upper body hug. This would generally be between either two women, or a man and a woman, or sometimes two men who are related to each other (like a father and son).
I asked Monique for a clarification of the greeting customs in France. Here’s what she said…
The custom at a formal business meeting is shaking hands. (We wouldn’t kiss our boss.)
With friends and family, we’d usually give 2 kisses. In some places it’s 3 kisses, in other places, like Paris, it’s 4 kisses. But I couldn’t find a map of France with different colors to show how many kisses they give in each town!
We call it faire la bise even if there are several kisses. Une bise means a smack on the cheek. Un baiser means a kiss that refers more to a lovers’ kiss. (Take care: as a verb, it means something way more than a kiss!)
One kiss in France usually means a very close relationship, usually romantically involved.
We kiss, or faire la bise, “all the time”. That is, every day, if we meet every day. But only once a day.
This is between two women or a man and woman. Men usually shake hands or hug and pat each other’s shoulders. If they’re father and son, or close friends who haven’t seen each other for a long time, they would kiss.
In some families, people even kiss each other’s cheeks when saying good morning and good night.
I also noticed, when I was in New York, that you don’t hug the same way. Yours would rather be a “shoulders hug”. I mean that you push the top of the body (head and shoulders) forwards and you hug. We do that only when very moved, like at funerals and long time departures. For us, all the upper part of the body sticks together in the hug. I personally can only do that if the emotion is strong enough = we share a very close relationship.
When I introduced Monique to my parents, I told them about giving one kiss on each check, as is the custom of French people. That’s how they greeted Monique (and vice versa) the first time they met.
I asked Monique if she had met my parents under normal circumstances (that is, without me having discussed greeting customs beforehand) would she have kissed them twice on the cheeks (since she sort of knew them through me), or would she only have shaken their hands. Here’s what Monique said:
About meeting your parents: given that they’re your parents, I could have done either (shaken their hands or kissed them on each cheek) when meeting them, because we’d never met before.
Actually, it depends on what you feel.
According to the way I “felt” about them as people, independently of the fact that they’re your parents, my first “feeling” would have been to kiss them twice when meeting, and when leaving. But we step here into personal relationships, besides the customs.
There is some “grey” area about customs in general. They can be interpreted differently depending on the region and also the individual.
One thing is sure, be mindful when greeting an individual from another culture. That one friendly kiss we’d give to friend in New York, would signal something more romantic in Paris.
You’re welcome to comment below about greeting customs where you live.
Many thanks to Monique for her clarification of French greeting customs.
Note: Check out my later post about the importance of giving a firm handshake.
This artilce was posted on Thursday, September 14th, 2006 at 12:10 pm and is filed under Countries & Cultures, Customs and Traditions, English, Faire la bise, Faire la bise (To do the kiss), France, French, Greeting Customs, Languages, Mama Lisa, USA, Words & Phrases. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.