Go left, then right: faire la bise

I’m bald…et je suis gentil–I’m putting it nicely.  The full version: I’m bald, fat, and old.

Nevertheless, every Tuesday morning I stop at Giorgio’s hair salon and take my seat in the chair.  (I’m pretty sure that Giorgio is actually Georges, as his French is both Parisian and quite hip.  A demen, he says to his employees as they head out the door at the end of the day–à demen.)  The reason for my weekly visit: my hairdresser Nadine is helping me with my bise.

Kevin, she sneered, if you’re going to do la bise, you have to really do it.  Apparently my air-kisses were too air and not enough kiss.

La bise is the French cheek-kiss that makes us Americans so incredibly uncomfortable.  (Turnabout is fair play, and the American habit of hugging makes the French incredibly uncomfortable, so don’t feel like you’re at a cultural disadvantage here no matter which side of the Atlantic you’re from.)  I ran into a French colleague at a conference a couple months ago.  She was chatting with a bunch of French friends, so it made sense to faire la bise when we caught sight of each other.  I did my best.  Kevin, she sneered, if you’re going to do la bise, you have to really do it.  Apparently my air-kisses were too air and not enough kiss.  (This odd use of to sneer is explained in the English notes at the end of the post.)

Nadine has been happy to step in and help.  After a few weeks, she was happy with my performance.  “Ah, the French kiss,” she said after our exchange, clearly pleased with her didactic skills–in English.  Now, Nadine doesn’t actually speak English, so I switched to French: Nadine, “French kiss” means something different in English.  Oh, really?  What?  I explained.  (See this post for how to say French kiss in French.)  Oh–NO.  Firm head-shake–there was no tongue in my future.

For me, the hardest part of la bise is remembering not to hug the person at the same time.  That’s a big mistake–see this post for a story about just how awkward things can get if you forgot not to make that very American gesture.  My current tactic: when I lean in for the kiss, I put my hands together behind my back.  I imagine that it must look odd, but it’s better than the embarrassment of hugging when I oughtn’t.  All in all, mind you, I find it a charming custom.  Apparently not all foreigners do, though–here’s a clip from French Fried TV in which Paul Taylor complains in loud British English about all the bother.  Subtitles in French.    And, yes: the CombienDeBises.com web site is for real.

English notes below the video.

English notes

to sneer (something):  to say while sneering.  I believe that verbs like this, which are normally intransitive (that is, they don’t have an object) but can also be used for conveying what someone else said without a change in the tense of the original utterance, are called quotatives.  (Compare “I screwed up that bise,” he said…where the person and tense of I screwed up doesn’t change, with He said that he screwed up that bise, where the person changes from I to he.  English has an enormous number of verbs that don’t seem to have anything to do with speaking, but that can nonetheless be used in exactly this way.  The wonderful children’s book The Phantom Tollbooth is packed with examples.  How it was used in the post: Kevin, she sneered, if you’re going to do la bise, you have to really do it.  Apparently my air-kisses were too air and not enough kiss. 

The Wikipedia page on sneering is quite amusing, by the way.  Want some more examples of this kind of bizarre quotative?  Here you go, courtesy of Sketch Engine and the British National Corpus.

  • ‘My Boticelli nymph,’ he smiled, slipping it behind her ear.
  • Ahem!’ he coughed.  I’ll take more careful aim.
  • ‘It’s all so unbelievable,’ he choked.

The quotatives that everyone likes to complain about are to be like and to be all.
I think they’re mostly American, but couldn’t swear to that.  They’re characteristic of younger people.  She was like, “I’m not kissing him!”  He was all “well, I have baseball practice tonight.”  You don’t have to use these, but you should recognize them when you hear them.

11 thoughts on “Go left, then right: faire la bise”

  1. Just been on the CombienDesBises.com website. Don’t laugh, these are the things that I REALLY need to know (Kevin is it?!?)
    It’s reassuring , as we have a hovel in the Aude and a shoebox apartment in the Pyrenees-Orientales, that most people kiss twice from the left in both departements.
    Of course the regions of France have just changed……..

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This bise problem is only real for people who make it a problem . As far as I remember it never has been for me . Sometimes of course it happened both of us leaned on the same side, but if you know it’s a normal incident that can happen with this act you don’t feel embarrassed and that’s all . This problem only comes from Anglophones self consciousness . Forget the embarrassment that you are the only one to bear and bring and the sky is clear .
    There are easy ways to avoid any problem . I do two bises because I deeply find 3,4 are ridiculous, whatever the local custom is . If I catch that the other one will make more I react in the same movement and follow because I’m a gentle boy . About which side first it is the same, it’s only a problem for people who make a fuss about it in their head by advance . Either you wait a tenth of second to let the other start so you can follow, either you ostentatiously announce which will be your first move so the other follows . It’s simple to do, like many things we complicate by our awkwardness .

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I like hugging, more than the bise that doesn’t mean anything real for my non cultural self, but with French people I keep it for family, lovers or really dear friends . Plus some exceptional situations when the other person, not so close, is deeply shaken, shocked or desperate . Whatever any act be, the important aspect is the meaning according to the situation, just like when a French smiles to a stranger, compared to an American .


  3. La bise becomes “il bacietto” in Italy (generally twice too) . After so many years here, my Anglo upbringing resurfaces when the sight of two men cheek kissing still makes me uncomfortable! Bring on a nice warm hug.

    Liked by 1 person

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