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France, We Need To Talk About Cheek-Kissing Because It's Nightmarishly Awkward

In a bid to avoid embarrassment ahead of a trip to Paris, I asked my French colleagues to explain the culture around "la bise", or cheek-kissing. Turns out they're just as confused as I am.

1. So, who do I have to kiss? People I've just met, or only people I know well?

yzgeneration.com / Via 20th Century Fox Television

Anaïs: "Everyone. Your parents. Your colleagues. Your friends. Strangers, even the smelly ones. Except in professional situations, like meeting a client."

Assma: "At a party you kiss everyone, even the people you don't know."

Cécile: "Women are expected to kiss everyone hello, which can be really annoying. In professional situations I tend to launch a handshake so I don't have to kiss people I don't know."

  1. Who do you kiss?

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Who do you kiss?
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    Kiss everyone.
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    Kiss only women.
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    Kiss only close friends and family.

2. How many bises? One or two? More than two? Bear in mind I am British and therefore shrink from displays of human affection.

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Anais: "Two, but in some parts of France, they'll tell you it's three, or sometimes four. Here is a map that explains it."

Assma: "Two with friends. Sometimes my aunt gives me four, but it's family, so it's OK."

Eric: "Two. Three or four is silly."

Pierre: "This is very controversial. In centre-west of France, it is one for someone you see every day (parent, flatmate), and two for other situations."

Cécile: "Two bises if you're in or around Paris. I think in the south they go for three? Also, the worst is people who start their bise on the left cheek instead of the right (there's a region that does that) and then you almost smooch them and everyone laughs awkwardly."

  1. How many bises?

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How many bises?
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    One.
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    Two.
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    Three.
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    Four.

3. So the direction you approach from is important?

Anaïs: "People in the south don't start with the same cheek than people in the north. So I always get it wrong, start on the same side as the person in front of me, and we almost accidentally kiss. You know when you're facing someone on the street and you don't know which way to go, so you both bump into each other five times before getting it right? Same thing, but with your mouth. It is very awkward."

  1. Which direction do you approach from?

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Which direction do you approach from?
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    From the left.
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    From the right.
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    It varies.

4. This all sounds incredibly complicated. Is it just hello, or do I do it when I say goodbye as well?

youtube.com / Via French Fried TV

Cécile: "Hello and goodbye! But doing la bise with everyone can be annoying so generally people won't hold it against you if you send air kisses to everyone instead of doing the rounds. At a party when I leave I kiss the host and wave to the others (or do an Irish goodbye like a sneaky person)."

Pierre: "You can also do it for goodbye, but it is rarer."

Assma: "Nope, just hello."

Anaïs: "Hello and goodbye. IT NEVER ENDS."

  1. When do you faire la bise?

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When do you faire la bise?
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    Only hello.
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    Only goodbye.
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    Hello and goodbye.

5. How about male friends? Should I faire la bise with them too?

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Cécile: "It depends. As a man you are expected to kiss women whether you know them or not and only kiss men you are friends with. You kiss everyone in your family though, man or woman."

Eric: "When we're young, we shake hands, but as we get older, we tend to faire la bise more often."

Anaïs: "Yes, unless your masculinity is too fragile."

  1. Cheek-kisses between men?

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Cheek-kisses between men?
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    Yes, I always kiss my male friends.
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    No, I prefer to shake hands.
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    It depends on the friend.

6. Does it ever get awkward, for example when someone goes for la bise and the other person goes for a handshake or hug?

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Cécile: "Yes! Especially in a professional situation where someone I don't know tries to kiss me hello as I'm taking out my hand for a handshake. So I try to give a handshake before they can go for la bise. If it gets into a hug it usually means you're really close so it's not too awkward, more of an "Oh, you need that? OK" situation.

  1. Does it get awkward?

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Does it get awkward?
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    Yes, it can be awkward sometimes.
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    It's not a problem.

7. How do I do it exactly? Is it an actual kiss, or more of an "air kiss"?

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Eric: "Grandmas tend to do big noisy kisses. You press your cheek to the other person's cheek and do a kissy noise. If it's someone really close or that you haven't seen for a while you might actually plant them a real kiss on the cheek."

Pierre: "Again, it depends. Normally, you don't touch the cheek. But you can touch if it's your mum's cheek."

Anaïs: "Air kiss! If you do an actual kiss, where your lips actually touch the person's cheeks, you're a psychopath. Or a pervert. Or it means you're flirting with them, but only try that if you're at a party and everyone is already pretty drunk."

Cécile: "The WORST people press their cheek and don't do the noise and that is just creepy. Don't be a creepy Brit."

  1. How do you do it?

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How do you do it?
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    I always touch cheeks.
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    I never touch cheeks.
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    I only touch cheeks with certain people.
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    I actually kiss the cheek with my lips.

8. Right, so the kissy noise is crucial?

Eric: "Yes. Otherwise it's awkward AF."

Anaïs: Yes, but not too loud, otherwise it's gross. So make a little bit of noise, and don't make it sound too ~sucky~."

9. Christ, this just gets worse. Aside from all the complexity and awkwardness, is it not really time-consuming when you're in a large group?

youtube.com / Via French Fried TV

Cécile: "Yes! The older I get, the more I sort of say, 'You're too many for la bise, just gonna say hi from afar.'"

Pierre: "Indeed. You have to prevent this situation by a simple hello hand if there is too many people. But if you kiss ONE person, you have to kiss everyone."

Anaïs: "YES. YES IT IS. It's very pointless. But there's always one asshole that starts doing it and then you feel like you have to do it too, and you get sucked into the germ-circle. I've seen groups of 30+ people doing it. I've seen it at LARGE WEDDINGS."

Eric: "Yes, it is. But it's a nice way to like smell people you know, like a crush or something."

  1. Does it take forever?

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Does it take forever?
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    Yes, it is time-consuming and annoying.
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    No, it's generally fine.

10. Does EVERYONE do it, or do some people opt out? Would I be considered rude for not doing it?

Eric: "Yes! It would be weird behaviour not to do it."

Anaïs: "Most people do it, and yeah, people think you're a jerk if you don't do it. Usually you don't even have a choice because as soon as someone meets you or sees you at a party, they'll lunge at you and leave you no other option than to accept their gross sweaty cheeks."

Pierre: "You can't refuse, it would be very rude – except if you're sick, of course."

  1. Is it acceptable to opt out?

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Is it acceptable to opt out?
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    It's never acceptable not to do it.
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    It's fine not to do it.
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    It's OK not to do it in certain circumstances.

11. As French people, do you ever get tired of it?

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Pierre: ""A little bit, sometimes."

Eric: "Only with grandmas."

Cécile: "It's a pain, but it's still 10,000,000x better than the fake-ass hugs Americans do."

Assma: "No. It's tradition. Plus it's a good way to see if the person you're into smells good or not."

Anaïs: "Yes. The bise is a social plague that needs to be eradicated."

  1. How do you feel about la bise?

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How do you feel about la bise?
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    I hate it.
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    I love it.
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    It can be annoying, but it's the social custom – what can you do?

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