Salutations et les microbes – how to greet the french !

Today, I decided there was nothing for it but to present my dilemma to the French. My dilemma – what are the rules for greeting the French?

I have an English friend who lives approximately 30 kilometers from Rouen in a small village on the way to Dieppe. We had at length discussed the differences between the country school and the city school, but what bemused us were the differences between the formality of greeting friends and  acquaintances  between the two places. For Ruth, to ‘faire les bises’ ( kissing cheeks) was compulsory and to avoid doing so was frowned upon and frequently perceived as insulting, rude and almost calamitous to a budding friendship. I, on the other hand, as city dweller was not so lucky to have these rules so clearly defined, and several times I have been on the verge of making a ‘faux pas’.

Our arrival was marked by the onset of Swine Flue, which led our Directrice, as part of her Rentrée welcome speech, to ask the assembled crowd of parents to refrain from kissing in order to avoid passing on microbes. Our particular enclave of parents have a spectacular fear of microbes, and luckily our arrival with our floundering french enabled us to avoid divulging the embarrassing fact that several cases of swine flue had been confimed at our previous UK primary school.

However two years on, Swine Flue has become one of those epidemics with no substance, but still our school refrains from kissing, with the exception of the kids. So what are the rules exactly?

On meeting in the morning the french college students ‘faire les bises’ – girl to girl, and girl to boy, and the boys shake hands. The french college students and primary children ‘faire les bises’ with familiar adults on meeting in the playground, on the street, or on visiting a friend’s house. Noticeably, being slightly inhibited myself by not knowing the rules, the college and primary children make the first move to kiss me. This demonstrates that at grass roots it is expected, learnt behaviour taught by parents. So what has happened along the way to make the whole process so confusing at an adult level?

My husband, on arrival at the office, would greet each member of his thirty strong work team every morning, with a hand-shake to the men, and by ‘faisant les bises’ with all the women, irrespective of status and hierarchy. It was also imperative to remember who in the team he had already greeted that morning, so as not to re-greet someone in error in the ‘coffee-making area’ , meeting room or lift later on.

The reason for my dilemma is as follows; with not less than12 abundant window boxes, it was necessary to find some-one to do a spot of watering when we were away on our four week tour of europe this summer. It occurred to me that the other family that had moved into our building had some likely looking college kids who might appreciate a bit of pocket money, so one afternoon I dropped a note through their letterbox to suggest the idea. It was warmly received, and later that evening the parents arrived at our door to see what needed to be done. In the end they stayed for a bottle of wine, and by the end of the evening we had got to know a little more about them. We handed over the keys and parted for our holiday!

On return from our holiday, our neighbour came up to visit for a debrief, and Harry and I shook hands and ‘fait les bises’ respectively.

Some weeks later, not having crossed paths for some time, I came out of the lift to find our neighbour waiting at the rez de chaussé, and proffered a cheek to ‘faire les bises’ and he likewise, but at the sametime felt slightly awkward. The next meeting was in the car park where we greeted from afar, and the following day we crossed paths in the street. This time I had no idea whether to be forward and once more proffer a cheek,  whether to shake hands or to say a cheery hello. All day I cringed inwardly that I had been too forward when getting out of the lift, and that I had not had the courage to continue to ‘faire les bises’ on the successive meetings; After all, it isn’t often that British women feel comfortable kissing relatively strange men in deserted entrance halls! Now had our neighbour been a gregarious outward going sort of guy, I’m sure that all things would be fairly well defined; but he is one of those deep silent enigmatic kind of frenchmen; and with my husband a million miles away in Africa, I was really not wanting to give the wrong impression!

So therefore, I decided I needed to put the question of greetings to the ‘playground mums’. So here is the word from those in the know:  ‘Faire les bises’ with people you know in the playground and your community if you haven’t seen them for a while – the begining of term, after a holiday, and if you invite them to your house. Give them a smile and a  friendly ‘coucou’ in the playground and the street thereafter. Of course there are many people who are exceptions to the rule and they have to be defined individually. Generally in the professional office as a woman, one will ‘faire les bises’ with everyone. If one has a more menial employment situation – take the lead from the boss, and continue that way thereafter.(so long as it is above board!) Kiss all visiting primary aged children when they arrive at your home; and kiss all college age student friends of your own children, or college aged children of your friends at the home and in the street.

And why this difference between the city and the country? – The microbes of course. The Swine Flue may have disappeared but there are plenty more lurking and ready to pounce, and the city mamans do not like microbes. Snotty noses mean trips to the doctors for antibiotics, and days off work! Country mums seem have a more earthy approach to germ warefare!

What of my neighbours, I still haven’t worked it out, I think a cheery hello will suffice most of the time and  a handshake after an absence. I don’t think I have made a goof. It will all work out in time!!

2 thoughts on “Salutations et les microbes – how to greet the french !

  1. hilarious. what killed me is that every summer starting when I was about 12ish, I found that when I came back to France people suddenly seemed to be exchanging more than just a bise on each cheek. Suddenly people were looking like chickens pecking each other 4, 6, 8 times – (this I believe is very much a country thing) and I was told that different regions in France now had different numbers of bises. total nightmare. I hope you have been spared in Rouen!


    • When my husband was a student in Lille, they exchanged 4 bises, Rouen has 2 – thank goodness (but there are no rules at all). A dad that i had never met before dropped my son off from a party, and as the lift was broken i met him midway on the second floor stairwell – but do you “faire les bises” in a gloomy stairwell or shake hands? I don’t think even he knew!!!


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