When in France, kiss, don’t hug!
If hugging is a common greeting in the United States among friends and family, French people almost never hug.
When I arrived for the first time in the US, it was so awkward to me that it actually took me about six years to feel comfortable enough to truly hug my friends.
Frenchmen mostly shake hands: a firm, strong handshake, looking into the eyes. If you are really happy to see the person, you may cover your handshake with your other hand.
Women shake hands in a professional situation, or if they don’t know each other at all, but move on to kissing very quickly, even at work among colleagues – with both genders. For example, you may arrive at a party and shake hands, then socialize, make friends, and get kissed when you leave.
The kiss is more of an air kiss, but the cheeks do touch, unlike the mocking American air kiss.
Parisians usually kiss twice, once on each cheek, and it will feel weird if you stop at one. In other parts of France, the custom is to kiss up to four times.
This is also a question of social class. The higher up in social class, the less kissing and more handshaking. In more relaxed social classes or with younger crowds, men often kiss each other. Always on the cheeks, usually twice. They may even hug a bit, but more of a ‘tap on the back’ kind of motion, not a big American hug.
Learn more about kissing and hugging in my French Politeness masterclass.
un baiser = general for a kiss
un bisou = colloquial word for a kiss
Both un baiser/un bisou could be romantic (sur la bouche) or friendly (sur la joue).
une bise = colloquial for a kiss on the cheek (to say hi or goodbye)
embrasser (verb) = to kiss
s’embrasser (verb) = to kiss each other
baiser (verb) = used to be ‘to kiss’, but has switched meaning through time. Now it means ‘to f**k’.
Careful not to mistake the very common noun un baiser with the vulgar verb baiser. The correct verb to use for ‘to kiss’ is ‘embrasser’. If you said to someone “je vous baise“, it will not be well taken … Say “je t’embrasse” or “je vous embrasse” instead.
1. French greetings, via Easytobook Blog
2. Camille Chevalier Karfis
3. How to greet people in France, via eHow