French Friday: Everything You Wanted to Know About French Kisses. Yes, Even That One.

A few days ago I finished a novel by Margaret Peterson Haddix, who was one of my children’s favorite authors. They loved her Series The Shadow Children. Her most recent book is a standalone novel for teens. The Summer of Broken Things is set in Madrid, and although there is much more to the story than the foreign Spanish setting, Madrid plays a big role. I smiled when I read what surprises the two American girls as they wander through their summer neighborhood. They notice that an American third-floor is not a European third-floor, that most American favorite food is not easy to find. And they notice couples kissing in the street.

Like I noticed that American couples didn’t kiss in the street. Or when they did, it was not how French couples kissed in the streets.

I returned my book to the library and went to yoga. As I entered the studio I bumped into a friend, leaving one of those heated classes that reminds me of a sauna.

“I don’t hug you,” my friend said. “I’m so-o-o sweaty. By the way, how do you say, “hug” in French?”

“Uh,” I started. “There is not really a word.”

“Really? How come?”

I tried to come up with something. But I was quickly rattling on. So I shrugged apologetically.

Then, there was Joey‘s comment on my last post. “Yes, we’re huggers,” she wrote about Americans. “We are. Kisses are for dear friends. Handshakes are for strangers. Everyone else is a hug.”

Okay, I thought as I unrolled my mat. I guess I’m not done with the topic of hugs and kisses.

So today I’ll try to give you the basics about these infamous French kisses. In case you’re planning a trip, it can be helpful. As you know the most simple, ordinary gestures symbolize a culture and sometimes result in involuntary mistakes from the newcomer. Believe me, I know. Mistakes, anyway, remain the best way to learn and embrace our differences. Worst case scenario you’ll make people smile. Been there, done that 🙂




How do French people greet each other?

They shake hands or kiss on both cheeks.

When do you shake?

It’s quite obvious that you never kiss in professional and business related situations. French handshakes are then the norm. They must be firm and eyes are supposed to meet too, whether you’re a man or a woman.

When do you kiss?

Girls and women always kiss when they meet their friends or friends of friends, whether these friends are girls or boys, women or men. Back in France, I kissed people I had never met, only because friends introduced them to me. However, older men and women will more often be greeted with a handshake. You still follow me? 🙂

Faire la bise describes this action, literally to do the kiss.

On se fait la bise means we’re going to kiss each other (on the cheeks).

This is NOT a kiss between lovers. La bise is a quick, light kiss where lips don’t linger on the cheek. In fact, lips don’t have to touch the cheek, even though the cheeks meet. What MUST be there, though, is the sound that resembles this: The song Big Bisous which is from the mid 70s is interesting for the sound of the kisses too.

This is why la bise is also called un smack.

Careful: a French smack is NOT an American smack.

No French is going to slap you in the face if he/she says: Allez, on se fait la bise (Come on, let’s kiss).

A very common equivalent to la bise is le bisou. Le bisou is one of the first words taught to babies in fact. And all little French kids know how to blow a kiss at a very young age. My French-born daughter delighted Californian passersby with her bisous. Un bisou can be petit or gros, small or big.

A phone call between friends or relatives will often end with, “Bisous.”

How many kisses?

There is no rule, since the number varies per region. Most often it’s one kiss on each cheek, sometimes two, and sometimes more. In my natal Normandy people tend to favor two alternative kisses on each cheek. Since there is also no rule about which cheek to kiss first, there are occasional odd situations where people hesitate (right or left cheek?) and accidently brush their lips too close to the mouth. So-o-o embarrassing.

Above, I mentioned that older people are greeted with a handshake. However, when family members introduce their own friends, even when they are older, it’s expected to kiss them.

I will always remember my born-American children’s reluctance to meet their grandparents’ friends but also neighbors and merely acquaintances when they grew up. They knew they would be kissed, something that they quickly found strange and uncomfortable.

For full disclosure, I feel the same way now. Some French cultural aspects are not as natural as they were when I lived there. Emigrating create some inevitable distance. It’s not bad, just different.

And yes, the first American hug I ever received left me as embarrassed as my kids with their first French kisses. It felt so odd to feel another body pressed against my chest and belly.

Do men kiss in France?

When they know each other well and see each other regularly, or are young, men will kiss, even though they often shake hands. Sometimes they kiss while shaking hands.

Do the French hug?

Kind of. Not really. No.

In my early months and even years in the U.S., I was often surprised, a little embarrassed, but also moved when a total stranger hugged someone in obvious pain or despair. Like it was the most normal thing to offer another human who needed comfort. Although I’m unable to be so spontaneous, I think it’s kind and very American.

No big bear hug in France, even during hard times. People will vaguely squeeze your shoulder, but never hold you against their body. Sometimes, men who are good friends, regardless of age, will pat each other’s shoulder in a quick move that has nothing in common with an American hug, since there is no other body part in contact besides the hand on the shoulder. Parents and lovers are the only people who provide something close to a hug to their kids or significant other. But le câlin is the American cuddle, not really a hug.

There are always exceptions in France, as this video clip illustrates. The French songwriter and singer Renaud sings J’ai embrassé un flic (I Kissed a Cop). The clip shows the singer with a sign that reads Câlins Gratuits or free hugs. Notice the “hugs.” Some are really close to an American hug. Again, this is a song. Most French people don’t hug as spontaneously and with the same strength as American people.

The absence of hug in France seems odd when one considers how French people kiss so much in public. Including the infamous French kiss.

You were probably still reading to finally know how the French call the French kiss.

Le baiser français? Non.

Only Americans say French fries, French doors, French manucure, or still French drain. Nobody say French kiss in France either. We kiss, that’s all.

In order to avoid major embarrassement:

Un baiser is a kiss in French.

But baiser does NOT mean to kiss. Baiser is slang to say making love. The F word is the exact American translation. So careful here 🙂

This song from one of my favorite French contemporary songwriters and singers is about this kind of baiser. It is actually a beautiful song, with gorgeous lyrics.

Embrasser is the only verb that means to kiss.

An American embrace is une étreinte, which is rarely used alone. The kind of étreinte will be described for clarification purposes. For example: une étreinte amoureuse, between lovers.

To embrace is étreindre. For lovers the best verb is enlacer.

Embrasser can, however, also be used for ideas or causes that are embraced.


If you aren’t a hugger, France is a great place for you.

As long as you don’t mind learning a few rules about these French kisses, kissing lots of people, and being kissed in return.

When current and former French presidents demonstrate the art of the French greeting kiss.

Embed from Getty Images


Embed from Getty Images


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