Kiss Goodbye To Tradition? COVID Versus “La Bise” In France

Are we kissing goodbye to la bise, the traditional French greeting kiss?

French President Marcon and Former President Trump engaging in la bise
French President Marcon and Former President Trump engaging in la bise. FACEBOOK

Pandemic requirement: la bise – a traditional French greeting of kissing on the cheek – had to be put on pause for several months. Due to strict sanitary rules during COVID-19, authorities and public figures urged the French population to stop any form of physical contact, including the traditional greeting kiss on both sides of the cheek. But, with France having COVID under control and a new normal settling in, is la bise making a comeback? Or are we kissing goodbye to it? Some might say ouf! but others might miss the good old days.

In France, locals communicate mostly through the sense of touch. Due to COVID, an essential part of the French culture was taken away. “‘That’s it, it’s over, you can kiss’: the day I say those words, I will be a happy Prime Minister” tweeted Jean Castex in March 2021.

Within the French culture, la bise can represent several meanings: friendship, love, affection, and even just saying hello. Many political figures use this form of greeting to denote closeness with the citizens or respect for fellow politicians, like President Emmanuel Macron and former American President Donald Trump. The standard bise is two kisses, but it varies throughout different regions. For the beginners, here is a map that can be helpful.

History of La Bise

La bise is a form of greeting mainly used in Latin countries, which encompasses a big part of humanity. In some parts of the world, touching or kissing each other is completely out of the question like in Asia. In Mozambique, la bise is considered to be a foul form of greeting by certain tribes, and in the U.S. hugging has replaced la bise.

The old tradition keeps evolving with time. The gesture of cheek kiss first appeared during the 19th century, however it was only permitted between women. It was only in the 1970s when engaging in la bise between a woman and a man was socially acceptable. Men cheek kissing each other is a very recent practice that only started a few years ago.

Typically, la bise derives from the ceremonial kiss used between heads of states as a synonym of respect. The formal kiss can be traced back to the Antiquity, according to Herodote, the famous historian, when two Persian men from the same social rank met, it was tradition for them to kiss on the lips. But, if they were from two different social hierarchies, they would kiss on the cheeks. Kissing each other on the cheeks can also signify loyalty. For example, during the Middle Ages, the vassal and the Lord would kiss frequently to symbolize infinite faithfulness. This tradition, however, started to disappear during the Renaissance, as a more affectionate kiss emerged.

Unwanted contact

Many people are against contact
Many people are against contact. Photo by Önder Örtel on Unsplash

Unfortunately, several things partly died during COVID, including the popular French tradition. According to a French survey conducted by IFOP, 78% of the French population will stop kissing strangers on the cheek, and 50% will avoid kissing their loved ones (friends or family.) “La bise is not the only form of greeting. I can think of 10 different ways to say hello to someone, including smiling.” says Léon, 54. It is a known fact that COVID had a moral and physical impact on numerous people, as some spent several months suffering from “skin hunger”. According to the same institute, more than 40% of the French suffered from anxiety, and breakdowns. Some pessimists (71% of the population precisely) believe that a return to normal is out of the question. “I think COVID is here to stay,” states Sarah, 28. “And even if it does die down, it will never be the same as it once was.”

The many new forms of greeting that appeared during COVID

As COVID appeared, so did many new forms of greeting. As seen on social media, fist and elbow bumping became the new cheek kiss. Numerous people got creative, and invented somewhat “unique” names, such as: the Ebola handshake, footshake, namaste…etc. The Ebola handshake is actually one of the most popular forms of greeting used since the beginning of the pandemic. The footshake is also well-known and consists of extending your leg and touching your friend’s foot with the tip of your shoe.

Nevertheless, these ways of greeting someone are challenged by certain doctors who remind us that COVID-19 is an aerosol-based virus. According to the Dr. Anne Simon – a physician at Cliniques universitaires Saint-Luc – “No elbow shakes, we just say hello from afar and from over five feet away.”

Glimpse of Hope

La Bise
La Bise. Photo by Vlada Karpovich from Pexels

Beyond people worrying about post-pandemic life and how worse it is going to be, some are very optimistic. In a time when we cannot see the future clearly, it is reassuring to hear positive voices. “When authorities discouraged all physical contact, it was the saddest thing. I cannot wait to hug and kiss people again, especially my grandmother. I can’t help it! It’s part of who I am.” says Julia, 20. In a survey by the French institute IFOP, at least 39% of French will continue to kiss their family and friends; a sign that all hope is not lost.

With more and more people getting vaccinated, we really hope that la bise can make a come-back! I mean, is it really France if we don’t see people kissing each other on the cheeks all hours of the day?

Eve McGuardian


Eve was born and raised in NYC and later on, moved to Paris. She grew up in an international home and is fluent in both French and English. Every chance she gets, she travels; either to discover a new culture or as a volunteer in an organization. The most memorable cities she has been to are: Ischia, a little island off the coast of Naples for the people, Istanbul for the culture, and Paris for the architecture.

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