La bise

One thing most people picture when they think of France is people kissing each other on the cheek to say hello or goodbye. The French expression for doing this is faire la bise and it’s not the same as a romantic kiss, which is called un baiser. The important things to know about kissing are:

  • Women and men alike do la bise. It is more rare to see a man kissing another man’s cheeks but it happens, especially if they are related.
  • If French people don’t usually kiss strangers in the street, they might kiss someone unknown if s/he’s in a group of friends. It is a nice way to get acquainted.
  • You usually start by putting your right cheek to their right cheek.

The total number of times you kiss each other on the cheek varies from one place to another. It can be twice, three times, or four, and you switch cheeks between each kiss. Just keep kissing until the French person stops! Sometimes even French people get confused, with one person stopping before the other does, and then they joke about it.

Serrer la main

While Americans usually only shake hands (serrer la main) when first meeting someone, French men shake hands to say hello and goodbye. As a rule, they do it only twice (one hello, one goodbye) per person per day–so if they run into someone they already saw that day, they don’t do it again. Women also shake hands with each other or with men, but usually only in professional situations such as job interviews. In other words, with friends, French men shake hands and French women kiss. The French handshake is less energetic than the American one: it’s a firm once up-once down, rather than a vigorous shaking.

Le sourire

Basically, smiling is reserved for friends and acquaintances: you smile as you kiss in greeting or shake hands, and whenever you feel like it when talking with friends. A smile is reserved for expressions of friendliness. If you smile at strangers or even people you’re meeting in a professional situation, such as at a job interview, you may be perceived as very flirtatious, insincere, or even simple minded. But with friends–smile away!

L’espace personnel

Anthropologists have written about personal space, which they define as an “invisible bubble” around each person’s body that is considered that person’s territory. The size of an individual’s personal space is different from one culture to the next. People from one culture may have a smaller bubble—and feel comfortable being very close to each other—while those from another have a larger bubble, and need more physical distance.

In general, French people’s personal space bubble is considerably smaller than North Americans’. This is why it may seem that people keep bumping into you in France! If you’re not used to cultures where personal space is smaller, as in many Asian and Mediterranean countries, you may feel threatened, crowded or invaded when interacting with French people. Just keep in mind that they almost certainly don’t mean to make you feel that way: they just define personal space differently than you do.