The COVID pandemic has forced French people to fundamentally rethink how they interact with each other. They will need to reconsider the way they typically greet and say goodbye to one another with a peck or two on each cheek, a kiss known as la bise.
Should this customary greeting, this deeply ingrained cultural habit of faire la bise be avoided during a pandemic?
In the video below, French Public Health authorities keep telling the inhabitants of the Grand-Est region to please stop kissing, which translates as s’embrasser:
Arrêtez de vous embrasser.
Stop kissing.Play Caption
Hold it! Does that mean that French people should stop kissing altogether? Not exactly. It simply means skipping the traditional peck or two on each cheek (la bise or s’embrasser sur la joue) every time you greet a friend or an acquaintance. The French health authorities are not specifically referring to romantic kissing.
Still, despite the risk of contamination, many French people are finding it difficult to abandon this tradition as it feels very awkward and unnatural to them, and they just can’t help themselves!
Beaucoup de Français ont un peu de mal à changer les habitudes, un peu de mal à oublier la bise.
Many French people are having a bit of trouble changing their habits, a bit of trouble forgetting the kiss on the cheek.
Captions 12-14, RMC Covid-19: faut-il encore se faire la bise?Play Caption
Cette mère de famille avoue embrasser la plupart de ses connaissances.
This mother admits to kissing most of her acquaintances.
Captions 43-44, RMC Covid-19: faut-il encore se faire la bise?Play Caption
Back in pre-COVID days, if you wanted to break the ice and exchange bises for the first time, you could just plunge ahead or you could simply ask, On se fait la bise? (Shall we give each other a peck on the cheek?). In a subtle way, asking or granting permission to exchange bises indicates the beginning of a friendship, in partnership with se tutoyer (using tu, the informal form of “you”).
But for now, the habit is hard to break. It’s usually de rigueur and not optional among family members. And it’s up to you to guess or decide how many bises you should exchange. Usually two will suffice, but that can vary.
The pressure to exchange la bise is greater on girls than boys as girls are expected to kiss everyone, regardless of gender. Girls especially feel the social pressure to exchange bises as they worry that they will come across as cold and unfriendly if they don’t kiss their friends and family members.
(Speaking of cold, la bise is also a cold northerly wind that bites your cheeks. We discussed this in a previous lesson.)
As for males, they aren’t expected to kiss everyone, and serrer la main (shaking hands) with male friends or relatives is acceptable.
If a man is feeling very gallant and old-fashioned, he can kiss a lady’s hand: faire un baiser sur la main. There’s even a special word for this: le baisemain (kissing someone’s hand as a mark of respect).
Although not so much used as a formal greeting anymore, le baiser remains a beautiful expression of love. Un baiser often refers to a romantic kiss:
Depuis que tu m'as laissé ce baiser fiévreux
Since you left me that feverish kiss
Caption 9, Charles-Baptiste Sale typePlay Caption
The verb baiser used to mean “to kiss,” and it was perfectly acceptable to use the term in formal circumstances and otherwise:
Il faut se mettre à genoux et baiser le pied de l'empereur. C'est la coutume.
We must kneel and kiss the emperor's foot. It's the custom.Play Caption
But beware! Baiser as a verb means something else entirely now! It’s slang for “to have sex.” But don’t worry: un baiser (a kiss) is safe to use in a sentence.
In addition to le baiser (kiss) and la bise (peck on each cheek), you may come across a couple of variations:
Le bisou, or “little kiss,” is warmer and more playful than la bise. The term is often used when talking to children, but also with good friends or lovers. It’s an expression of love and affection and is not typically used as a greeting like la bise:
Et moi, j'ai pas droit à un petit bisou?
And me, don't I get a little kiss?Play Caption
Un bécot is a somewhat more intimate kiss, more like a “smooch.” In this video on school regulations regarding public displays of affection, students smooch (se bécotent) in school. You can watch the entire video to discover more slang words for kissing:
Cela dit, le règlement ne prévoit aucune sanction pour les amoureux qui se bécotent à l'école publique.
That said, the regulations do not allow for any sanctions against lovers who kiss at public school.
Caption 31, Le Journal Baisers interdits dans les couloirs!Play Caption
So there you have it: multiple ways of greeting and expressing love and affection in French, whether it be la bise, un bisou, un baiser, or un bécot. It may have to be une bise virtuelle à distance (a virtual, socially distanced kiss) or an elbow bump until we can kiss the pandemic goodbye!