French people love kisses, and so the ‘bises’ is a very common greeting between friends, family, colleagues and even sometimes strangers. You’re expected to lean forward and touch cheeks, pretending to kiss the air near the other person’s ear while making sure to let loose a light kissing sound with your lips – though not your voice.
It’s a fairly complex system in that the social codes alter drastically according to which city you are in. In Paris, for example, you’ll give two kisses placing the right cheek first, and then the left, whereas in the South of France, you’ll see people use the opposite cheeks. The number of cheek kisses also changes, with some cities like Montpellier preferring an elaborated greeting of three kisses, and some places even stretching to an improbable four.
What also changes is between whom it is socially acceptable for these kisses to be exchanged. It’s a very common greeting in the southern parts of France, even between males, whether relatives or just friends. However in the North, it’s less common – less cool – for two males who aren’t family members to perform the famous ′bise′.
The French cheek-kiss came under fierce scrutiny during the H1N1 epidemic of 2009 for hygiene reasons. Some French people still protest against this ancient tradition to this day, claiming that such intimacy – sometimes between complete strangers – increases the risk of spreading diseases like mononucleosis, herpes, rubella, and even meningitis.
Nonetheless, the tradition is still going strong. While some people say that younger generations are challenging its status, sometimes opting for gangsta-like handshakes, hugs, or simply reducing the amount of bises, if you go to a French soiree you’ll still be expected to go round everyone introducing yourself with a cheek-kiss. Even if there are 30 guests, you’ll be perceived as rude if you skip this social tradition.