When I was 11 years old, I spent my first stay in France, it was an exchange with my school in Germany. One week in a host family, one week in a country I didn't know, a country whose culture and language I didn't know either. So far, no problem. But when I arrived, the whole family was there to welcome me. Father and mother, little sister, grandmother and grandfather and even the distant aunt of the mother. And each one of them gave me a "bisou". Imagine that, that's 12 kisses in one go and a lot of cheek rubbing.
At the time, I was outraged. In Germany, I never experienced being 'kissed' by a foreigner.
However, leaving aside my childhood confusions, even within France and French-speaking countries, "la bise" remains an impressive misunderstanding.
To begin with, perhaps we should clarify for the very beginners about France and its traditions, what is that, LA BISE? Well, that's what a French-speaking person* does to say "bonjour", so "hello": they give little kisses in the air, with their cheek glued against the other's. But beware, you don't give them to everyone, or everywhere in the same way! Confused? Absolutely!
So who do we kiss? Basically, you could say that "faire la bise" is rather practiced in a familial and friendly environment, but since there are no real rules, I don't want to say that it never happens in a formal environment either. In some companies, this is even quite the norm (at least in the South of France)! Afterwards, there are people who say that doing "la bise" is rather reserved for women, which may be true, but in my experience it's really done between everyone. But then again, there are no rules: I have seen men ‘kissing’ women but shaking hands with the other men in the group and others giving bisous to everyone in a group.
But once you has decided who to give ‘kisses’ to or not, the question is how many? Indeed, the number of kisses one gives depends on the region in France but sometimes it can even differ from one village to another. To give you an idea, here are a few examples from all over France and French-speaking countries:
-in Île de France (north), Bretagne (west) and Franche-Comté (east) they do rather 2 kisses
-in Occitania (south), it’s rather 3 kisses (and there are some who even do 4 or 5)
-in Belgium, they only make one bisou
-in Swiss Romandie, it’s 3 kisses
-and on La Réunion Island, they make more 2
(for those who are interested, here you can go deeper into the matter : https://www.combiendebises.com/index.html?v=1)
And what about when you're not sure how many kisses? This is where one will inevitably drop the other and literally leave him with his cheek in the air. A good example: person A (North of France) meets her friend B (South of France). After two kisses, person A withdraws but person B is still in full kissing practice for the third bisou. And then there might be an extra kiss followed by a sentence like "Ah yes, you're doing 3 at home...", and everyone laughs a little.
Wouldn't that be a strategy to break the ice in the first place? At least, for me, it's already done that!
Another misunderstanding, which can create some funny moments, is the choice of cheek that is extended first: right or left cheek? Apparently, there are also tendencies according to the region: thus in the North, one tends more the right cheek, in the South it is more the left cheek that one advances. And of course, if the two don't tend the same, it's a big chaos, one goes to the left, to the right and back, until both sides manage to ‘kiss’ each other, without hitting their heads.
So, you see, kissing is a mystery for foreigners (maybe even a malaise) but for the french people it's not much better… What's important is that it's an adorable, welcoming and inclusive gesture that is deeply part of the French culture.
If you don't have enough of it yet, here's a very funny little video about the great subject "la bise": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T-VWbV6TJxU
* So as not to create the impression of wanting to categorize people, I would like to add here that I am not saying that every Francophone MUST kiss at all costs, nor that a Francophone is no longer a Francophone by not giving kisses. J