So, I’m walking home from the gym the other day and I see a young girl, probably about twelve, on her way home from school. As she passes a cafe she spots a couple of middle-aged gentlemen sitting outside. Clearly knowing one of them she stops, the man stands up, and they exchange a quick kiss on each cheek. A couple more words, and she moves on her way. Simple as that.
Today, on my way out to the gym again, there is a gentleman directing a garbage truck that is trying to back up on one of the small, mostly pedestrian streets that make up Aix centre-ville. He moves over to a couple cars waiting for the truck and motions for them to back up some for the truck. Looking in the passenger window of one of the cars he starts talking excitedly to the man driving the car. At first I think they are arguing, but boy was I wrong! Next thing I know he is going over to the driver’s side and the driver is getting out of the car! All to faire la bise because it turns out that they knew each other!
This is a custom, especially in France, that many foreigners, myself included, often have much trouble adjusting to. When meeting a friend or family member, the French greet them with a kiss on each cheek. The number of kisses depends on the region, for example in Paris and in Aix it is two kisses, one on each cheek. However, I have heard that in some other regions it can be three, or even four kisses! (All that back and forth, sounds dizzying!)
And they do it all the time! Meeting a friend on the street : faire la bise.
Arriving at a party : faire la bise (supposedly to everyone there, even if you don’t know them that well).
Even when being introduced by a friend to another friend, they will often want to faire la bise. And if I should then meet that person again by chance it is very likely we will again.
It is as natural to them as a handshake, or a hug is to us (although I don’t think we would get out of the car to do so, then again it was a very quiet street, so they weren’t really interrupting traffic). As foreigners, we often find it much more difficult to get used to than a hug, or handshake. And it creates many questions for us.
Do I always do it? How do I know with whom/when to and when not to? Which cheek do I go for first?!? How much contact should I make (this can also vary by region though, I’ve heard)? These questions have come up often amongst my friends during late nights over cheese and wine (how else would you expect us to do it after all?!).
Unfortunately, I don’t really have any definitive answers. My best advice is : let the French person decide. Let them lead on whether or not to faire la bise and how many to do. Don’t be worried if you both go the same way, it happens laugh it off. And usually they don’t mind, as they know you’re foreign and may not be used to it.
Don’t use that as an excuse to avoid it though! You’re supposed to be experiencing a new culture, so experience it! They only way you can is by properly immersing yourself in that culture and its customs.