Greetings in France: a guide to avoiding awkward situations

Every country has its own etiquette when it comes to meeting and greeting people. It's often actually one of the first things foreigners ask about when moving to a new country. We all care about making a good first impression, respecting the local culture and just generally being polite.

In the UK, I found things were sometimes highly ambigous! You shake hands in a professional environment or when you meet someone new (unless they're particularly friendly and want to go in for the hug... at which point, if you weren't expecting it, you awkwardly try to slide your hand away from their crotch as they pretend like they can't feel it), you hug your friends, and sometimes kiss relatives on the cheek. Actually come to think of it, this hug/kiss/handshake limbo, which may or may not occur is probably why British people can be so awkward with greetings in the first place (as I too have become after spending 2 years living in London).

Coming from a background where it's the norm to greet people with 3 kisses, yet growing up in an international environment where amongst friends it was always the hug, I was always used to quite friendly greetings. Moving to London however, the hug limbo and the fact that I met people from so many different places who all greeted people in their respective ways, seemed to constantly get me into awkward greeting pickles. I found myself involuntarily sticking to timid waves or handshakes to take initiative and immediately establish a greeting, in order to avoid the limbo. This is something I am not happy about in the slightest. I get the feeling that people instantly think I am cold or frigid when, in fact, it has just become a bad habit of trying to avoid confusion. Even in France where you quickly learn that 'la bise' or the kiss on the cheek, is the norm, I find myself constantly forgetting to do so with the people I see every morning. So after asking around about the proper way to greet people in different environments and doing a little observation myself, here's what I have found.


Men will almost always greet each other with a handshake, unless they're very close friends or family members. Par contre, men will always greet women with 2 kisses (well, 2 if you're in Paris. To better understand the technicalities of the bise according to the region of France you're in, see next week's article 'the bise dilemma'). Women will greet each other with a bise in almost all situations, unless it is in a particularly professional environment. So it's easy if you're a woman because the bise is basically all you have to remember. However – and here's the tricky part – how do you know who it is appropriate to kiss and who not to? After some research, it was made clear to me that you always kiss work colleagues, friends and people you are meeting for the first time in non professional situations, but that you must never initiate the bise with a superior at work. Instead, you must wait until they either initiate it or reach for a handshake. Very handy information if you're starting work in a French company soon!

Oh and for your own good, please do not pout and plant a sloppy one on a person's cheek – that's weird. I know it's called a bise but there should be no lip-touching of the actual cheek. It's more like cheek bumping and a quick pecking kiss sound effect. I'm sure you've probably gathered that by now, but you know, just in case.

Also, when you are meeting a fair number of people, it is less socially acceptable to greet the group as a whole with a wave or a 'hi everyone'. It's better to say hello to everyone individually to be polite. The same goes for when you're saying goodbye, generally.

So I guess I have this greeting thing more or less figured out. It is now just a question of getting back into my Lebanese kissing culture and getting out of the awkward wave habit I have fallen into, remembering to greet my colleagues, even the English ones, with a bise every morning. I no longer have an excuse, because although there are still complications, the French do significantly simplify the situation. 

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