The more that you travel more the awkward that your own way of life can begin to feel. Your way of communication and taste in music can begin to trigger dichotomous emotional responses of comfortingly familiar and distantly foreign. Longing for your typical foods can trigger insatiable cravings. But these feelings tend to come later, after several months on the road, after a fair time spent in a new and exotic habitat. However, I feel that there is one cultural custom that kicks in immediately upon touchdown and can take months to get used to.
Greetings tend to make you feel downright awkward immediately, and, in my opinion, the situation can only get better from there. I find that I am overly distant and formal for Latin people, while too warm and fuzzy for Asian culture.
To Bare Witness Greetings
It’s one of the most fascinating cultural phenomena to which I bear witness when I travel. Greetings tend to make you fumble and can catch you off guard. Then, after a period of time they take a turn, becoming second nature, to the point where you begin greeting people from your own culture with what you would both otherwise see as overly physical displays of affection or exceedingly distant salutations.
In The US, a standard greeting when meeting someone for the first time is a handshake. From handshakes we move to waving, or a head nod, or a simple, “Hey, how are you?” Most relationships will never progress past this stage. When you become close, you advance to hugs. Sometimes. If someone is what we refer to a as a “hugger” they may push the pedal on this advancement.
When I am home, huggers terrify me. For me, anyone who hugs too soon has some childhood issues that they are burying or an overly affectionate love for mankind, both of which are things to be weary of.
Do you see what I just did? Greetings and the progression of greetings in my home country are so ingrained in me that variations from the norm on my home base scare me.
That’s right, they scare me.
People Who Hug
I remember this one time in college a girl came over to my house for dinner. (No, this isn’t a pornographic transition.) She was my roommate’s friend. I cooked. We had a great dinner, laughed a lot. Blah. Blah. Blah.
All in all, she seemed like a really sweet girl, but then she did the unthinkable. She hugged me as she walked out the door. My roommate threw me an apologetic look and walked her to her car. It is in cases such as these that a curt pat on the back comes in handy. She didn’t follow my cookie cutter expectations of what people were supposed to do, and as an outlier she made me uncomfortable. My roommate later told me that she was just so happy to have met us. I thought, “Clearly this girl is a serial killer.”
One Time in Africa
When I went to Kenya I was caught off guard by the touch and go greetings and the rules behind them. Greetings depended upon gender. Men and women could shake hands. But women shake hands, or gently take the wrist of the other woman, and touch cheeks. Not kissing, just a gentle touching of cheeks. I once did this with a man and I was criticized for “kissing” him.
When I came to Peru I felt like everyone kissed me. My students would line up on their way out the door to kiss me on the cheek. The longer that I stayed the more that I realized this was a much more complicated issue that was influenced by social class and situational roles. I am not supposed to greet taxi drivers and plumbers with a kiss on the cheek. But I do greet my orthodontist who I see twice a month with a kiss on the cheek. I don’t greet the house cooks at my boyfriend’s house with a kiss on the cheek. Yet I am expected to immediately greet his parents. I started kissing my Spanish teacher after just two weeks of classes! You don’t kiss your landlady, but you do greet all of your friend’s friends with a kiss regardless of how close they are or how long they have known each other.
Kissing People To Greet
A couple months in, I became overly comfortable with the kissing and started kissing everyone. I know, please keep those fresh comments inside. But seriously, it kind of became a problem. Learning how to regulate my lips was awkward for me. I mean, I kiss my parents twice a year. And certainly not every time I walk through the house for a dinner.
The small community of expats even start exchanging pecks when saying hello.
I realized that I had a problem with my smackers when I bought empanadas off of the same woman three times in one weekend on the beach. The third time I saw her, I ran up to her and kissed her before asking for una empanada con carne. She was horrified.
I am still learning to regulate my smooches. Every day I make progress in this area. Hopefully one day I will come to the point where I have a smooch switch and learn when I need to turn it on and off. In the meantime, I may just have to run amuck and ignore the pecking order.