Faux Pas Friday: Beware the Bise!

Honey, ‘come take me in your arms’! Oh, just give me a ‘hug’!


I was horrified to learn in my first French course that there existed no word for “hug.”
“But embrasser?” we naively asked. “Surely that must mean to embrace?”

“No,” our kind teacher informed us, “embrasser means to kiss.”

“So this,” we said, wrapping our arms around ourselves. “What do you call this?”
Surely a simple demonstration would quickly clear up the matter.

“Prendre quelqu’un dans les bras”, Madame Julie said.

“Come on,” we snorted. “You must have a word for ‘taking someone in your arms.’” French is supposed to be lyrical – what’s with this unwieldy phrase?

Calin, she offered, but I have since gotten wise to that, too. A calin is a cuddle, and a cuddle does not a hug make or vice versa (though both are nice).

This should have served as (one of) my warning(s) about France – what kind of place doesn’t have a word for hug?

The missing word is not the only cause for concern. It’s missing the hugs, period. I grew up on big bear hugs. Hugs are used as greeting, comfort, congratulations, and more where I’m from. Getting used to la bise was a whole other story.

Ah yes, la bise. After 3 1/2 years I still find la bise awkward: Do I touch your cheek or don’t I? Must I make a kissing noise to accompany the air kiss? I’ve moved in too close, my face is too far. No matter how many times I do it, I never get it right.

Readers Shannon and Piglet in France also did not get something right: one kissed a banker, the other a priest.

I feel their pain. In a country where you can kiss even your colleagues, and every entrance and exit you make is a half hour marathon of giving la bise, one’s natural tendency might be to give everyone a kiss. Apparently even your financial and religious advisors.

I guess you’re not supposed to do that.

As always, I am here to make them feel better by sharing my own big bise faux pas.

There might be no word for hug, but there are many for kiss. In addition to embrasser, a bisous is a kiss. Un baiser is a kiss. But beware the latter – danger lurks!

After our first three dates, Jerome had still not made a move. Shy and sweet, he was the perfect gentleman – by that point, I was ready for him to take a step towards not being one.

Hours into date three, we’re listening to Nina Simone, drinking sweet white wine. I – eyelashes batting – finally ask, coy as can be, “so, don’t you want to kiss me?”

Only, my formulation was woefully wrong. If un baiser is a kiss, I had reasoned, baiser must mean to kiss (whoa! big leap! whatever gave me that idea?)

Well, friends, it was the wrong conclusion. Baiser means to f***.

My coy question turned instantly into a crude proposition. Reserved Jerome, however, did not let on.

“Yes, I want to kiss you,” he said correcting me (though I didn’t notice the correction). Because he did kiss me. And I melted.

Only months later did Jerome tell me what I had actually asked him. Americans really are direct, he must have thought. No doubt about it.

Shout-outs this week also to Adam for sharing how his romantic tete a tete turned into a table of 10 (deux and dix can sound awfully similar depending on whose pronouncing the words) and French teacher Marie for clearing up excite and chaude. It’s great feeling excited, but in French you better be ready to mean ‘sexually aroused.’ Now Jerome tells me I should still feel free to say excitee, but I won’t take his word for it. He’s just a little too good at keeping a straight face.

Poll: Are you more a hug person or a kiss person?
Plus: Funny faux pas always welcome. The best examples always get free shout-outs.

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44 Responses to “Faux Pas Friday: Beware the Bise!”

  1. 1 Adam March 26, 2010 at 10:13 am

    There are lots of possible words and discussions around the French for ‘hug’ here: http://www.wordreference.com/enfr/hug

    For example, the word ‘colleux’ exists in Quebec, where the locals are perhaps more likely to have a (bear) hug than in France!

    As for kissing, well I always find the worst moment to be not knowing on which side to start. You go one way, the other person goes the same way and you end up nearly kissing on the lips!

    On that subject I remember one incident that happened to my brother, but it was in England, not in France. Now us Brits don’t publicly kiss very often, but sometimes, such as when the bells strike in a new year, strangers may have a little embrace and a quick peck on the cheek. One 31st December I was with my brother in a public square and as the new year began we did the rounds of quick hugs and hand shakes, but after a few minutes I saw my brother looking a bit shocked with a white face.

    ‘What happened’ I asked. ‘Well’ he stammered, ‘I was going along the line when I came up against a little old lady. I went to give her a quick peck on the cheek and to say happy new year, but she grabbed my head and planted a huge kiss on my lips’!

    I think he made her year anyway!


    • 2 parisimperfect March 26, 2010 at 11:54 am

      Hi Adam,

      Great! I personally haven’t heard anyone really use those words for hug, but I’ll start giving them a try (if nothing else, I might garner more material for Faux Pas Fridays). I think I’ll start with ‘accolade’. Even if there’s a misunderstanding about whether it’s a hug, the person might think I’m giving them praise or an award instead (that’s what I take it to mean in English) – not too shabby 🙂

      I think the Quebecois (les petits cousins, as the French often call them) are more apt to give a good (bear) hug than the French, so that makes sense that they have a word for it! Good point.

      That’s a great story about your brother, too. He should feel quite pleased for having started the new year off well for that woman. (Who knows – I might be that kind of older lady one day! 🙂 )


  2. 3 Partager Paris March 26, 2010 at 10:45 am

    Faux pas Friday..

    As I was looking for an apartment in Paris, I happened to end up in the elevator with a nice-looking man, which led to me sneaking a closer look…which led to him looking back…all while we were in a nearly-coffin size elevator. Being caught off guard when he caught me staring at him, I said in my best francais, albeit shaky..”Je voudrais baiser le elevator”, which I thought was saying that I (the elevator) was going down. He turned to me and smiled and said, in good english, “but madame, I have not gotten to know you yet”!
    We both laughed..me realizing I had made a faux pas, but not realizing what exactly I had said. But the warm exchange, really made my day!

    OH the beauty of the french language.. I continue to learn everyday!


  3. 4 Partager Paris March 26, 2010 at 10:50 am

    Sorry, just noticed my website was missing…


  4. 6 Alison March 26, 2010 at 11:02 am

    I miss hugs too! On the east coast of Canada, where I am from, I always hugged my friends and relatives. In Belgium, the kissing issue is a mine field (as are most things in Belgium for that matter) because of the cultural divide. The Flemish tend to give three kisses, the French two and in Brussels, well you just never know. I wrote about it here http://cheeseweb.eu/2005/10/pucker-up/ a few years ago, and honestly, it hasn’t gotten any easier over time.


  5. 7 parisimperfect March 26, 2010 at 12:01 pm

    Hi Alison. Yes! I steal hugs wherever I can get them now. And you’re right – I didn’t even touch on the number of kisses. Paris seems to be 2-kiss territory, but my husband’s family is 4. (FOUR!!!) I’ve also had experience with a few 3-kiss people. I’m awkward about it anyway, but throw in that issue, it definitely makes it worse. That’s a cute post by the way (pucker up!). I do the kiss because I’m here, but I will always be a hugger at heart.


  6. 8 Rachelle March 26, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    Hi Alison,
    Even after 10 years, I still miss the hugs! And I’m married to an Englishman, so I don’t even really get them at home. But I have embraced the kissing thing. Here it’s 3, but I’ve come to realise that even the French get confused with how many and which side. Makes me feel slightly less awkward!

    My most horrible faux pas, as a teaching assistant 8 years ago had to do with the words cool and cul (ass). Pronounciation is everything!:-)


    • 9 parisimperfect March 26, 2010 at 1:11 pm

      Hi Rachelle,

      Oh that’s a great one. I also will always say that I’m waiting in a file d’attente rather than a queue, because for some reason I always seem to pronounce that as cul, too!



  7. 10 Lindsey March 26, 2010 at 12:36 pm

    I’ve done the classic “préservatif” when I wanted to say preservatives in food. Oh the laugh that got! “ahh tu veux dire conservateurs! tee hee”


  8. 12 Alison March 26, 2010 at 1:43 pm

    A friend loaned me this book not long ago and it was quite enlightening. People say English is tricky but I think French can be a minefield – http://www.amazon.com/Merde-French-Never-Taught-School/dp/0684854279/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1269607303&sr=8-1


  9. 14 Linda D. March 26, 2010 at 4:51 pm

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I nearly snorted my tea reading this, and of course my genuine laughter brought people running over to see what had amused me. One of the delights and pitfalls of exploring a language other than my own is how easy it is to fall into the bear pit of sexual inuendo. This can happen even in English. There is a HUGE difference between American English and Brit speak as I learned when I asked my husband’s colleague if he could ‘give me a lift in the morning’. I just wanted to tag along on his trip to Wimbledon, whereas he was throughly squirming at his boss’s wife’s blatant sexual come-on. Who knew??? Of course, my husband raised his own eyebrow when he tried to leave a wake up call for me at the B&B and was asked, “What time would you like your wife knocked up?” It goes both ways.

    Of course, it’s a wonderful way to find out who has a sense of humor and who doesn’t…


    • 15 parisimperfect March 26, 2010 at 5:01 pm

      Hi Linda. Thank YOU. I’m so happy knowing I can make someone snort tea! You are so, so right – it *is* a wonderful way to find out who has a sense of humor and who doesn’t. What a good test! (Though, of course, I usually say these things accidentally, but you know… 🙂 )That’s a great point between American and British English, too. I knew about the “knocked up” example, but not the lift. Thanks for enlightening me!


  10. 16 Karin (an alien parisienne) March 27, 2010 at 10:30 am

    What a great Friday Faux Pas piece, chica. Thing is, I really would like a *pronunciation guide* to go with this one to be sure I am using everything appropriately, lol. 😉

    I actually kind of like la bise compared to the hug. I love to hug my good friends and my loved ones, but I am not especially huggy with folk I don’t know so well. La bise is somewhere inbetween and handshake and a hug so I am mostly okay with it, although sometimes it does feel weird — especially like the example Adam gives of starting on the wrong side and kissing lips instead, lol.

    I, too, tend to make smacky noises — or really even worse, I tend to say a smacky version of “mwah” when doing it, and it seems like it should be something more silent, lol. But to me la bise is so… kind of dramatic, like only Society-types do it (in the States) and so saying “mwah” is my sort-of making fun of it, without really meaning to.

    I LOVE Partager Paris’ elevator story, hahaha! That’s really cute.

    Thanks so much for the enjoyment, Sion, with this post. It made me smile and laugh. Thanks to the commenters for adding their fun as well. Have a great weekend, everyone!


    • 17 parisimperfect March 27, 2010 at 8:45 pm

      Thanks, Karin. I know, a pronunciation guide would be great – for me too! I’m crap at phonetics.

      That’s great that you like the bise – because we do it so much here! I’ve embraced it simply because that’s what’s done here, but I will be a hugger forever 🙂


  11. 18 Montpellier Miss March 27, 2010 at 9:36 pm

    My faux-pas are generally brought about by poor pronunciation, I’m usually too freaked out about saying something that makes sense to concentrate on how I’m saying it. This has led me to ask for:

    Une salade de chaude (hot salad) instead of salade de choux (cabbage salad) while ordering sushi.
    Un pain aux raison (bread with reason) instead of raisins (raisins) at the boulangerie.
    And for something sale (dirty) instead of salé (savoury) at the patisserie.

    The French have been very nice to not laughed at me, it is usually a slight twitch of the face that tells me that I have just said something silly and leads to a forehead slap 5 mins later when I realise what I’ve said. Erhhh….


    • 19 parisimperfect March 27, 2010 at 9:50 pm

      Hey Montpellier Miss! Those are great examples. My pronunciation is horrible, too. I really think I need a class just on that. That’s nice that no one’s laughed at you. I figure, at least we’re trying! 🙂


  12. 20 tanyaintransition March 27, 2010 at 11:49 pm

    I asked D about a French word for hug and he came back with “embrassade” and “accolade” and “calin”. I told him those aren’t the same thing. His reply? The French don’t hug. Oddly enough, he’s a wonderful huggy-kissy kinda guy. Thanks again for the laugh.


  13. 21 parisimperfect March 28, 2010 at 12:05 pm

    Hey Tanya. I’ve heard that reply, too – “The French don’t hug” !
    Luckily it’s not true – or at least, I’ve *made* it not true with my Frenchman. I’ve taught him to be huggy and he just uses the English word for “hug” now 🙂


  14. 22 Lydia March 28, 2010 at 10:08 pm

    I have just laughed my whole way through this post and comments – it rang so many bells! Thanks 🙂


  15. 24 anonymous March 28, 2010 at 11:08 pm

    One time I spent quite a while describing the beautiful “pipe” I had at home, that it was the best “pipe” ever…


    • 25 parisimperfect March 29, 2010 at 11:32 am

      Wow, I can’t quite imagine what you were trying to describe, but I know what you *were* describing. Yep, that’s a great example of a faux pas! (What must the other person been thinking!!) Thanks for sharing! 🙂


  16. 26 Émilia March 29, 2010 at 9:30 am

    Your french verb exists: it is “étreindre” (une étreinte). Be be careful: «de longues étreintes» are not something you would practice in an vertical position…

    About “serrer dans les bras”, so long an expression instead of a short verb. French people do not usually hug (the younger generation does sometimes, but it is a copycat for american movies and TV shows). So, if you hug somebody, it really expresses deep feelings, something worth of several words 😉


  17. 28 Erica-Haven in Paris March 29, 2010 at 1:32 pm

    After many years in France, I admit I have come to like and appreciate the bise. The real warm and friendly bise of good friends is very sweet. The bise of the people I do not really know is still kind of odd and awkward. In social situations, I have learned that I do NOT have to bise everyone. Sometimes a hand shake IS ok. I bise selectively. And when leaving a party, if I just want to be off and done with it, I play my American card and say ‘ciao tout le monde’ (and will secretly kiss my good friends) and take off. I used to stress about leaving and ALL the people I had to kiss. No longer. I have relaxed about this. The bise is very complex and I think as a non French person, truly understanding all the nuances of it could take a very long time. And it is true, sometimes nothing beats a good old fashioned hug.


    • 29 parisimperfect March 29, 2010 at 3:08 pm

      Hi Erica. Glad to hear that the bise has become natural for you. I can be just awkward in general, so I’m not sure whether that’s going to change – here’s hoping! 🙂 Also good to know that I don’t have to bise everyone. I play that American card, too – ciao tout le monde !


  18. 30 Angela March 31, 2010 at 2:19 pm

    As an Italian (where we kiss twice when we meet) who has grown up in a French household (where we kiss four times the first time we meet and three from the second time on), I fully understand if someone gets confused with all this hugging-and-kissing! I get confused myself when I meet my French or my Italian family.
    And quite embarrassing, depending on the country, meeting someone and starting the kissing procedure both on the same side!


  19. 32 wondercozza April 1, 2010 at 2:07 pm

    Believe it or not, I am a stranger in Paris too for the “bise”. I was raised in Italy and so was my son, where we do not kiss strangers. Result is that everybody thinks me and my son are absolutely rude and snobbish: we just “forget” la bise, and I just can’t get used to kiss like 10 people I never saw before when arriving at a party. My son, on his side, always forgets to kiss old ladies when introduced, (fais la bise à la dame!) 🙂


  20. 34 Charlie M April 5, 2010 at 10:45 am

    This is what I do. I just go straight in for the bisous. The woman determines which direction she turns her cheek. Works every time.

    I have not yet had her NOT turn so it goes on her lips. ;-(
    Oh, well.


  21. 36 meesalikeu July 19, 2010 at 3:31 am

    love this discussion — sorry to further complicate this topic but in both paris and provence i experience the issue of different cheeks! what i mean is the bise starts with the left cheek at hello and starts with the right cheek at goodbye. or vice versa! at the time everybody seems to know this but me haha! anyone else experience this?!!?!

    oh and in general a good pre-warning or get ready tip i learned is that if someone touches your arm first you are going to get a bise. also, at the end of the night, after the food and wine and chat, evrryone gets a bise. very important to hang in there for that.


  22. 38 Miguel January 14, 2011 at 9:36 pm

    Uhh – it’s French – not English. Learn how they say it in French and stop trying to make it English.


    • 39 paris (im)perfect January 14, 2011 at 10:05 pm

      Hi Miguel. This was a pretty tongue and cheek post. The whole point is that I *do* know the French word and there’s no equivalent in English. I was relating my experience when I was first learning French, which I now speak.

      Funny, after four years in Paris I also know the French sense of humor is very different from mine. Not everyone’s going to laugh at the same things I do. So, a lot of people thought this post was funny and related to it. No worries if you didn’t. Take care 🙂


  1. 1 The HiP Paris Blog » Blog Archive » Faire la Bise: The Art of the Parisian Double Air Kiss Trackback on March 29, 2010 at 10:08 am
  2. 2 Metlinks OTW : 03.04.10 | Paris Metblogs Trackback on April 3, 2010 at 4:43 pm
  3. 3 French Friday – Le Business of La Bise | Misadventures with Andi Trackback on April 16, 2010 at 1:12 pm
  4. 4 One Year « paris (im)perfect Trackback on February 1, 2011 at 1:29 am
  5. 5 My French Faux Pas in Quebec » Jan Santos Trackback on February 9, 2011 at 10:30 pm

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paris (im)perfect?

Sion Dayson is paris (im)perfect. Writer, dreamer, I moved to France on – no exaggerating – a romantic whim. As you can imagine, a lot can go wrong (and very right!) with such a (non)plan. These are the (im)perfect stories that result.

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