Despite the February frost my hands are starting to clam up. I’m dragging my tongue invasively over each tooth in the hunt for stray croissant flakes that may or may not found a new home in my mouth after breakfast.
I had already been a little flustered, after losing my train ticket and being charged a €50 fine en route from central Paris to the West suburbs. But then Ben (not his real name) tells me that we are off to meet fifteen of his French friends, and I just about lose my shit.
Meeting fifteen new French people means that thirty kisses in the space of sixty seconds are coming my way.
You’d be called a lot of dirty words in England for being the girl who gives out thirty kisses in less than sixty seconds.
Of course, on this occasion I’m lucky. In the suburbs of Paris two kisses, one on each cheek, is perfectly acceptable.
A few months later on a trip to the South of France I end up in an awkward face-to-face situation with the brother of a friend who is expecting three kisses, not two.
Blushing awkwardly I reach in for the third but the moment’s gone and I should have just excused the two by pointing out the obvious… that I am an awkward English girl who is far more comfortable with a hand shake.
So, because I like you guys a lot I thought I’d outline what I’ve learnt about cheek kissing etiquette in France in the hopes that you don’t end up looking like an awkward turtle as much as I did. Even though sometimes I still do…
French cheek kissing etiquette
Girls kiss everyone
If you’re a girl travelling in France you have less chance of getting away with a hand shake than the guys.
Guys will always kiss the ladies, but they less often kiss other guys unless they are family, friends or younger boys.
Girls however will always be expected to turn a cheek and make the smacking noise on each cheek of every acquaintance (new or old).
Drive on the right, kiss on the left
Knowing which cheek to start with is a crucial lesson that can prevent future accidental lip-to-lip action with strangers. As a general rule in France, you should start the cheek kissing on the opposite side of the face as cars drive on the road – kiss their left cheek.
Of course this is just a general rule and not one set in stone, so if someone goes for the right and you end up snogging them instead just try and laugh it off.
They may be calling you a stupide anglais in their head. So give them a cheeky wink as if you meant to aim for their lips and walk off like the sassy Brit you are most definitely not.
If in doubt start with two
Very few places in France give just the one kiss. The fact that some departments (regions or counties to us Brits) give the odd number of three or even five(!) is proof that the rule of two has nothing to do with cheek equality. It’s just a safe starting point.
To help you out a bit with this one I’ve found this incredible map below by the very talented Bill Rankin of Radical Cartography. You can click on the map for more details and to see where the data came from.
When to give the faire la bise
ALL THE BLOODY TIME!
Okay that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But sometimes it does feel like I’ve had to kiss way too many of the same cheeks in one day.
As a starting point, always go with the cheek kissing in France when you say hello and goodbye to someone, no matter if you’ve met them before. Same goes for large groups of people – yes, you have to kiss everyone when you arrive and when you leave.
Do French people give hugs?
I thought I’d address this topic because I am a hugger. Always have been, always will.
But my advice here is just not to hug French people. They don’t really know what to do when you wrap your arms around them and to the French, a hug is far more intimate than a quick peck on each cheek.
Of course, I break this rule a lot with close friends and I think they’re getting used to being greeted with a big bear hug. But with new acquaintances you’re just going to have to grab that chewing gum and breath spray and start smooching.
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I hope this helps prevent you making as much of a fool of yourself in France as I do!
Good luck and lots of love,