“French kiss” is one of those terms that transcends languages, countries and cultures. Even in Canadian French, a deep kiss can be called un french. But if you had to pick a real “French kiss”, that would probably be la bise.
La bise is an exchange of kisses on the cheek and the traditional greeting in France. It’s something most French people engage in at least once or twice a day, whether with family or friends, or with colleagues.
But despite being a part of everyday life in France, la bise can be complicated. Let’s talk about all things bise, and learn more about kissing in French in general.
How do you say “kiss” in French?
Before we go into detail about la bise, it’s important to talk about how French people talk about kissing.
There are three different kinds of ways to say kiss in French:
la bise/une bise
A fundamental greeting in French culture. This is a series of light kisses on the cheek (the number varies depending on the region a person is from). La bise is usually exchanged between friends and family. It can also be exchanged with coworkers, depending on your work environment, or even with total strangers if you’re in an informal, convivial social situation where everyone is greeting each other this way.
Women tend to systematically faire la bise to men and other women, while men may refrain from exchanging la bise with other men (although they usually make an exception for family members and very close friends).
You may occasionally see or hear “une bise” instead of la bise. This would mean a quick peck on the cheek, not necessarily the multiple-kiss greeting ritual that is la bise.
Some French people will end informal emails, text messages, and other written exchanges with friends and family with Bises or Grosses bises. This is the equivalent to XOXO or “Kisses”, “Love,” or “Lots of Love” in English.
Using this closing for a written exchange is more typically done by women than men, unless the men are talking to someone very close to them, mostly family. French women, on the other hand, will use these closings with friends or even friendly acquaintances (if that feels right).
A cute word for a kiss. Un bisou is often used by children. It can signify anything from an innocent kiss on the cheek, to a romantic kiss on the lips (un bisou sur la bouche).
Bisous, Gros bisous, or Bisous à tous/vous tous/tout le monde, etc. are often used as an informal, affectionate way to close an email, letter, text message, etc. In this context, it’s similar to “Love” or “Kisses” in English.
In my experience, these expressions are more common than the aforementioned Bises/Grosses bises. But like those expressions, these are also used mostly by women. Men tend to use them only with family.
Unlike Bises/Grosses bises, Bisous and its related expressions are somewhat childish and fun. Bises/Grosses bises are a bit more “adult”. That said, closing any kind of written communication with Bisou as a singular word is an affectionate way to “kiss” the person you’re in love with. Men and women can write this to their significant other.
Bisous, Bisou, and its related expressions can also be said when ending a phone call with friends, family, or your significant other.
Un baiser is the “grown-up”, standard way to say “a kiss”.
If you don’t specify where you’re kissing the person, it’s generally understood to be a kiss on the lips. But you can be specific, for example: un baiser sur la main, un baiser sur le cou, des baisers sur les paupières.
Because of its romantic context, this is the word you use when talking about a first kiss – un/son/mon, etc. premier baiser.
How to say “French kiss” in French
Now that you know baiser is used when talking about a romantic or sensual kiss, you probably won’t be surprised that un baiser profonde (a deep kiss) is the standard way to say “French kiss” in French. You might also hear the more descriptive un baiser avec la langue.
There are also several common ways to say “French kiss” in informal French. These include:
- une pelle
- une galoche
- un patin
- un french (in Canadian French)
You may have noticed that the first three of these words have other meanings when they’re not used in this context or as slang. For example, une pelle is a shovel and un patin is a skate. So, what do those have to do with French kissing? It turns out they’re derived from an old French verb, patiner, which evolved into peloter (to caresse insistently, fondle, grope).
Galoche is a big old shoe, a clodhopper, if you will. What does that have to do with French kissing? That’s not as easy to figure out. According to this source, it may have to do with the play on words between patin (skate) and patin (French kiss). Whatever the case, if the kiss is a really wet, messy one, galoche works as a nice onomatopoeia!
You can find more kiss-related vocabulary and expressions here.
Why do we say “French kiss”?
As you can see, the French don’t refer to “French kisses”. That’s because they didn’t originate in France in the first place. The Kama Sutra, written in India around 300-400 BC, mentions several rough equivalents to French kissing. In Europe, Ancient Romans had the suavium, a special category of erotic kiss that was only supposed to be done with a prostitute.
In the 19th century, French people called “French kisses” baisers florentins (Florentine kisses).
So why do we call them “French kisses today”? They got that name in early 20th century Anglo-Saxon culture, when it was common to call sexual or erotic things “French”.
How NOT to say “to kiss” in French
It may seem a bit complicated that there are three categories of kiss in French. But here’s something even more complicated that non-native French speakers need to know:
Although un baiser means “a kiss” in French, the verb baiser DOES NOT MEAN “to kiss”!
As a verb, baiser means “to fuck”.
So you can see why misusing it could lead to some awkward misunderstandings….
There is one notable exception to this rule, though.
Originally, the verb baiser did simply mean “to kiss”. Over time, it evolved to mean something more than that. But before things got to that point, the phrase baiser la main (to kiss someone’s hand) was very common, since this sign of devotion or respect had been performed in French society for centuries.
The phrase is so prevalent in documents, literature, and poetry of the past, that the phrase today is perfectly understood to retain its original meaning. For example: Le chevalier a baisé la main de la princesse. (The knight kissed the princess’s hand.)
This common expression has even evolved into a noun: le baisemain (the act of kissing someone’s hand out of respect.)
How to say “to kiss” in French
So, how do you say “to kiss” in French? As with its noun form, there are several ways to express “kiss” as a verb in French.
To express doing la bise, you would say faire la bise.
To express giving un bisou, you’d say faire un bisou or donner un bisou.
You can add detail to that specifying where (lui faire un bisou sur la bouche, lui donner un bisou sur la joue, etc.)
To express sharing a romantic or erotic kiss, you’d use the verb embrasser, or its reflexive form, s’embrasser.
Céleste avait tellement envie d’embrasser Joachim. (Celeste so wanted to kiss Joachim.)
Alors, ils se sont embrassés. (So, they kissed.)
Note that since s’embrasser is a reflexive verb, you have to make it agree with the subject. So if you’re talking about two women kissing, you’d write: Elles se sont embrassées.
Another way to say “to give a (romantic or erotic) kiss” would be faire un baiser or donner un baiser. There is a subtle difference between these two options and (s’)embrasser. Essentially, (s’)embrasser has a more immediate feeling, while the other two have a bit of distance. Of course, this also depends on the context, connotation, or delivery of the words.
If you specifically want to say “to French kiss”, you have a few options. The most common are:
faire un baiser profond
Many of these slang phrases for “French kiss” use the verb rouler. That may have to do with the possible skating pun tied to patiner as well as possibly pelle and galoche that I mentioned previously. But there’s no certainty about its origin. Maybe it’s just an exaggerated way to suggest the tongue’s movement.
How do you greet a French person with la bise?
Now that we know a little more about kissing in France in general, let’s talk specifically about la bise.
La bise is a traditional, common way to greet family, friends, and even coworkers (depending on your workplace). It’s the equivalent of both a handshake and a hug.
Basically, faire la bise consists of lightly kissing someone on the cheek or cheeks.
Depending on the region of France you’re in and/or the region a French person comes from, the number of bises to exchange varies, as does which cheek to start with.
If that sounds intimidating, don’t worry – even French people may not know how many bises are exchanged in different places in France.
Generally, if it seems like you haven’t exchanged enough with someone, they won’t be offended. They’ll either just continue and you’ll take their lead, or they might even explain “In [my region of France], we do [number of] kisses.” I’ve experienced both, and there was never any frustration or animosity.
As for which cheek to start with, I’ve never really even thought about that, personally. The other person usually just leans in with a particular cheek, I guess, and we take it from there.
So, don’t worry: Despite the tradition and protocol around la bise, you’ll probably find that in many ways, it’s pretty intuitive. You’ll also be given a lot of leeway if you’re a foreigner, especially if you come from a faraway country or one that’s considered “prudish” by the French (this very much includes the US).
But if you want to become an expert on la bise, there are ways you can study up. For instance, there are actual maps that show the average number of bises to exchange in each region, and which cheek to start kissing .
This said, there can be variations. Personally, I usually just let the French person take the lead.
If you’re a visual learner, you can watch the video on this webpage (which also includes lots of information about la bise) to see what it looks like to faire la bise. You’ll also hear someone explain that in the region they come from, it’s three kisses, not two. The video is a bit silly, so take parts of it with a grain of salt, but the opening scene where the four people greet each other is absolutely realistic.
One thing you might notice in the video is what people do with their hands when exchanging la bise. Some will lightly hold the other’s upper arm or shoulder, while others will just extend their cheek. I’m not sure that there is any particular reason for this. It could have to do with how close you feel to someone, or it might just be as simple as needing some purchase so you don’t topple over.
Keep in mind that la bise is a greeting, so that means you would only do it to a person twice, at most, in a single time you’re together – once when you say hello and once when you take your leave of each other. It isn’t something you do every time you pass each other in the hall at school or work.
Who else does la bise?
As you can see from this survey, many other European Francophone countries exchange la bise. Other countries, like the Netherlands, practice it to a certain extent, as well, although it may not be as codified.
You may also live in a country where la bise isn’t generally a thing, but in your particular subculture, it is. That’s the case for me. I grew up in an Italian-American family in north New Jersey. There, la bise is de rigueur when you greet friends and family (even cousins you’ve never met), although it can be more of an air-kiss at times, and is only done on one cheek.
Fortunately, that makes me much more comfortable with la bise than many of my fellow foreigners. For instance, you can watch this hilarious clip of British comedian Paul Taylor venting his concerns about la bise.
When to faire la bise
Here are the people or situations with whom/in which you’d typically faire la bise:
• with family/in-laws
• with close friends
• in a social situation where everyone is exchanging la bise
If you’re a man, be sure the other men are doing this – in some cases, they will and in other cases, they save bises for only their closest friends or family members.
• in some workplaces
Let’s talk about this one for a minute. Greeting each other with la bise is a common part of professional life for most French office workers. This is especially true in traditional office environments. On the other hand, you’re not likely to see someone in retail or food service or a freelancer working at a shared space do this.
For an outsider’s perspective on la bise in the workplace, I’d recommend the iconic expat book A Year in the Merde, in which an Englishman struggles to adapt to life in France. Exchanging la bise at work is one of the things the main character has to adapt to, and the challenge is presented in a very funny way.
Who shouldn’t faire la bise?
Although la bise seems to be a part of most French social interactions, there are times when some people won’t do it. These include:
• two men who aren’t family, very close friends, or coworkers (depending on their corporate culture)
Apart from the other exceptions on this list, women are pretty much always expected to faire la bise to people of both sexes. But things are a little more complicated for men.
Usually, two men who are related or are extremely close friends will faire la bise. But men who are just casual friends, acquaintances, or even coworkers, won’t. Some men won’t even faire la bise with anyone besides family members. For example, my French husband will always greet his male (as well as female) cousins with la bise, but even he and his best guy friends just greet each other by saying Salut (“Hi”).
You can see from this silly and possibly offensive (depending on your personal tastes, beliefs, and preferences) comedy sketch that many men feel exchanging la bise between male friends or colleagues is usually considered weirdly intimate.
On the other hand, several sources I’ve read while researching this post claim that younger generations do tend to exchange la bise more freely between men. One source even referred to it as a way to foster a sense of belonging amongst a group of friends, a team, etc.
So, it really just depends. Ultimately, though, it seems like men have more leeway and can exchange la bise based on their personal preferences, rather than expectations.
If you’re a man in France, the best thing to do, in my opinion, is to see if your French friends lean in for la bise. Then just go with it, unless you really feel uncomfortable (more on that a little further on).
• non-coworkers meeting for the first time in a professional setting
Many French coworkers faire la bise, but when you’re meeting a client or coworkers you don’t know, especially if they’re not French, it’s best to start with an introduction and a handshake.
• people in certain corporate cultures
Although it’s fairly common for coworkers to faire la bise, it depends on your workplace. If you’re coming into a new office, notice who does la bise and who just shakes hands or gives a nod. I’ve seen this mix of the two in the French branches of multinational companies, for example.
• people in a professional setting who aren’t coworkers
Your profession may exempt you from la bise. For instance, I used to teach English in French companies. My students may have exchanged la bise with each other at the start of class or when they arrived at work earlier that day, but they never did it with me.
It wasn’t about distance or dislike; we were very fond of each other. But I think the fact that I wasn’t an equal – a part of their company – and that I played a different role, teaching them, rather than working with them, made it seem like la bise wasn’t necessary, and maybe even inappropriate.
You’ll also see this this with, for example, staff who greet janitors or maintenance workers. And of course, anyone who comes to an office (or your home, etc.) to do a service like repairing something, making a delivery, etc., also wouldn’t get la bise.
• people who are sick/worried about getting sick
French people usually faire la bise in all seasons, even flu season. That said, if someone is noticeably coming down with something, they may politely abstain. This politeness wasn’t systematic, but then, in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic came to France.
Suddenly, French people were being told not to faire la bise, and even as a foreigner in France, I can say it feels very weird. But at least you don’t have to worry about accidentally offending someone if your preferred greeting is a simple “Bonjour”.
The restriction is an unusual opportunity to see how much la bise really is an integral part of French culture. French people had to be ordered not to do it. Everyday interactions became a bit strange, with people hesitating before greeting each other, not used to proceeding without la bise.
Do French children faire la bise?
Very young French children are usually expected to greet strangers or people in formal/professional situations (teachers, doctors, etc.) with a simple “Bonjour”. For family and close adult acquaintances, they’re usually expected not to faire la bise, but un bisou – a single kiss on the cheek.
As they get older, I’d say around eight and up, they will usually switch to la bise with close friends and family (although they may continue to give their parents and grandparents un bisou for a while). Amongst friends their own age, they’ll probably start to faire la bise around early adolescence – keeping in mind, of course, that some boys will probably never exchange la bise with their guy friends.
Do you have to faire la bise if you don’t want to?
There are many reasons people might not want to faire la bise, from worries about getting sick or making someone sick, to being uncomfortable with physical contact. The good news is, while it might be hard for a French person to get out of this social exchange, as a foreigner you will probably get a pass.
For instance, if I meet someone and don’t feel like giving them la bise, or just don’t think of it, I can usually just say a warm “Bonjour” or “Salut” and be done with it. Since I’m an American, most people won’t think anything of it.
This said, keep in mind that a hug does not replace la bise. As Benjamin has pointed out before, hugging is considered more intimate than la bise in France, and it will seem like an invasion of space for most French people. There are, of course, exceptions – for instance, maybe people who know you very well. But in most cases, it’s far better to just say a nice Bonjour than to bring it in for a hug.
All this being said, there may be situations where you feel pressured to faire la bise – for example, in a very traditional French work environment, or with older French in-laws or extended family. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any go-to solution. This article, for instance, shares testimonials from French women who hate to faire la bise at work. The article ends by feebly suggesting giving a warm smile instead, even while acknowledging that that may not be well-perceived.
Personally, I think that if you really have a huge problem with la bise, you should have a go-to excuse. You may say, for instance, that you have severe allergies to perfumes, makeup, and soaps, so you don’t touch people’s faces with yours. Or you could simply improvise and say you’re not feeling well and are worried the person might catch something. They may not be 100% convincing but if your priority is to avoid contact, excuses like these will probably work.
Another thing that may help is to remember that la bise is not considered a sexual or dominating gesture. For the French, it’s no different than a handshake. If it helps, I’ve never had a person’s lips linger on my cheek, and since you’re not holding your bodies close, you aren’t likely to be touched inappropriately.
How do the French feel about public displays of affection?
Faire la bise is a common part of everyday life for most French people. So, seeing it in public isn’t surprising, shocking, or inappropriate. You can even see some photos here of current French President Emmanuel Macron greeting people as diverse as Angela Merkel, the Trumps, and the Pope, with la bise.
But what about romantic kissing?
It’s absolutely okay for a heterosexual couple in France to exchange a kiss in public now and then. Of course, that does depend on the setting; regardless of their romantic reputation, French people would probably not appreciate romantic kissing happening during a funeral, for instance.
Deep kissing and making out in public might also be frowned upon by most people, but it isn’t illegal or publicly shamed.
On the other hand, the sad truth is that homosexual and other non-traditional couples do have to be careful about public displays of affection in France, even today. The principle of égalité, as well as the general French idea of private lives being private, mean that LGBTQ+ people have equal rights under the law. Homosexual couples can marry. And there’s even a long history of acceptance of gay and lesbian individuals here.
Overall, France, especially Paris, is considered very accepting. Recently, Paris ranked fifth on the Spartacus Gay Travel Index. However, in conservative villages or in areas where the majority of the population isn’t as accepting, non-heterosexual couples may run into problems like harassment or violence if they show public displays of affection. Sadly, this can include some parts of Paris.
So, if you’re a part of the LGBTQ+ community, do some research and be mindful of this while traveling.
Is la bise controversial?
Most French people see la bise as an everyday social convention, the same way you might think of exchanging verbal greetings or handshakes, or hugs with friends. But you will come upon articles and news items now and then where people share their dislike of la bise, especially in the workplace.
Women seem to be the most vocal about this, which makes sense, since they’re the ones who are pretty much systematically expected to faire la bise, while men can abstain in certain situations. For some women, it’s not just about being exhausted or generally grossed out by having to faire la bise with lots of coworkers and other people they interact with; some see the practice as sexist or domineering.
Others, like this mayor, see it as a waste of time.
You can find countless articles, essays, and editorials by and about people who are against la bise (especially at work), by doing an online search for the phrase “contre la bise.”
Still, overall, la bise is a major aspect of French culture. If you stay in France long enough, it’s just another part of your day.
What do you think about la bise? Have you ever had to faire la bise when you were in France?