Our Family’s (2nd) Year in the South of France
Kids and Castles - Our year with kids in the South of France

The Kissing Thing

I was somewhat familiar with the French custom of greeting with bisous (cheek-kisses) even before this trip. Most French-Canadians greet each other that way, including JM’s family. When JM and I first met, he had been in a predominantly English environment for a long time so he didn’t do any cheek kissing with me. It ended up that both his brother AND his ex-girlfriend kissed me long before he ever did!

But I was not prepared for all the kissing here in Provence. There is a LOT of kissing going on. And they kiss three times – not just two.  (I’m told in some places in France it’s actually four!)

I am still not an expert at the bisous but I have picked up a few things:

  • Don’t actually kiss – the lips should not actually contact anything during the bisous. Simply touch checks lightly while making kissing noises. Ideally the corner of each mouth just barely avoids making contact with the other person’s cheek.
  • Don’t kiss the same person twice in one day – it can take a lot of time to get through all the kissing, especially in a small village where you know most people. The trick to dealing with that is to only kiss each person one time every day. I ran into the cafe owner at the bank one day. I had to almost chase him around the bank to kiss him – but I was determined to adopt French customs. I discovered afterward that was a mistake since I had already done the bisous with him that day during my morning bread purchase.
  • Let the French person take the lead – the only mishap I’ve ever seen during the bisous happened between two English ladies. No one was quite sure of how it happened, but the two sets of lips made distinct contact. It was embarrassing and/or humorous for all involved.
  • Beware of glasses and hats – it took me a while to learn this one, because French men are quite smooth about removing their glasses as they go in for the bisous. The combination of two pairs of glasses bumping into each other is not pleasant, so caution must be used. Hats with wide brims are also dangerous and should be removed before the bisous no matter how bad the hat hair.
  • Some men kiss, some don’t – I can’t figure out any pattern in this at all, but certain men here kiss almost all the other men, some men don’t kiss any other men, and some go both ways. Since I’m not a man it doesn’t impact me at all, but sometimes JM gets some unexpected kissing action.
  • Kiss the village barkeeper, but not the teacher – actually who gets the bisous is consistent, once you figure out the customs. If JM sees someone he knows and gets the bisous, then I get the bisous also since I am his wife. But parents of your kids’ friends are not automatically bisous-ready. When I go pick up the bread or have a coffee, there are bisous for the person behind the counter – man or woman – unless it’s the new lady whose name I don’ t know. But don’t kiss your kids’ teachers even if you see them every day.

If I can just convince my kids to stop telling people they like “French kissing” I’ll be set.

7 Responses to “The Kissing Thing”

  1. patti says:

    Hilarious. Having just finished studying for an exam which included various systems of descent – “If it’s patrilineal, your brother’s daughter is related to you, but your sister’s son is not” – “If it’s matrilineal, your mother’s brother is the most important male in your family” – I’d say you are well on your way to understanding this system!

  2. Aunt L in Ont says:

    Given this custom, there’s a certain relative in rural Ontario who’d love to live in France – the one for whom U. Roy learned very young, to always extend a stiff elbow. 🙂

  3. Denis M in Québec City says:

    In my family on my father’s side, the three kiss greating happens sometimes. The two kiss version is more common.

    • Diane H. says:

      Hi Denis,

      So do you just keep track or is there some other secret signal on the number of kisses?

      I did notice that the son of a local villager who goes to school in Lyon gives me only two kisses – but the local village ladies get three from him. There is some algorithm he’s using that I don’t understand that puts me in the two-kiss bucket since I’m a foreigner.

  4. Maha says:

    Diane, I can only imagine you running around the bank trying give bisous to the banker. Quite a funny image!

    But what would happen if you refused a bisous? Say, because you don’t like the person or you’re uncomfortable? Or if you’re sick and you don’t want to get too close?

    This is a great post btw. Really enjoyed learning the art of bisous!

    • Diane H. says:

      If you are sick, you can kind of hang back and sort of wave your hands near your face and decline the kiss. I haven’t quite caught the expression the French people use, but it has the word mal (sick) in it.

      And you can just hold your body straight rather than leaning in for the kiss if you just don’t like it, but it’s rude. Kind of like ignoring a hand held out for a handshake.

      I used to feel that the kissing thing was too personal and uncomfortable, but over time I’ve gotten used to it. Now I feel like the “warm hug” I give my good Canadian and American friends is a much more intimate greeting.

  5. annie andre says:


    Hello, mummyinprovence.com told me about you and this blog. I found myself chuckling at a few of the posts.

    it’s quite amazing the similarities between our families.
    My family is french canadian. I have 3 kids, only one is fluent in french. We lived in Silicon Valley for over 20 years. I would love if we could chat over email. My family is planning on gong to France after the summer and i would love to pick your brain.

    Bisous xoxoxox Annie