A couple weeks ago I went to an intercambio (language exchange) and several of my Chilean guy friends were also there. It was a very entertaining evening sharing conversation while switching between languages and we decided to go out for some pisco sours and a little bit of dancing afterwards. When it came time to say goodbye, I kissed them all on the cheek, as is the custom here, and I had a sad realization while walking up to my apartment that this would never happen in the States.
One thing clearly different in the Latin culture from my own is the greeting with a kiss. It depends on where you are just how many kisses you might get, but you can be sure that people will always kiss you hello and goodbye. In Chile, the proper social behavior is as follows:
You kiss people on their right cheek whenever you greet them. This is normally not an actual kiss – just an air kiss – but you must make sure that your cheeks touch and that you make the sound. This should be done both when you say hello and bid farewell, even if the two are just a few minutes apart and even if that’s the only interaction you have. If you enter a party/gathering or leave one, it is polite to kiss everyone in the room, even if you don’t know them or haven’t talked to them at all during your stay. If you fail to do this, it can be considered very rude.
Now, just imagine arriving at a carrete (party) at someone´s apartment with 20 people inside. It’s going to take you a couple minutes before you can sit down or talk to the people you know. And be prepared for people that arrive after you suddenly appearing beside you and leaning in towards your face. Sometimes this still catches me off guard if I’m already lost in a conversation and hadn’t noticed someone new arriving. Also, if you happen to be one of the first to leave a gathering, it might be a bit overwhelming saying goodbye to everyone, and you might not actually get to leave until at least 5 minutes after you intended. Even if you say goodbye to someone and then talk for a couple minutes, you must kiss them goodbye again.
Even knowing that this is the cultural custom, there have still been a few moments or situations that surprised me a bit or stood out to me a little more, one being in an interview I had just a couple days after arriving in the country. I was in a very professional state of mind, dressed up and ready to meet my interviewer, and both male administrators greeted me with a kiss. That’s far from a handshake!
One night I was walking with my roommate and her boyfriend at the time when he spotted a couple old friends he knew on the street. Just because my roommate and I had been walking with him, the two guys kissed us hello. They only talked to their friend for a moment, and then they kissed us all goodbye. I didn’t even know the boyfriend that well, but I was kissed just by association, just because I had been walking with him on the street.
This same kind of situation happened when my friend Laura was in town, who doesn’t speak any Spanish and is far from accustomed to the kissing culture, but she would be kissed by people who never even spoke her language just because she was standing next to me. Kissed by association.
I’ve taken a couple tours where I chatted with the tour guide afterwards and then we kissed goodbye. The one that got awkward though was the end of the horseback riding tour I took in Patagonia. There were only 5 of us on the tour – two Japanese, two Chileans, and me. While waiting for our rides to pick us up afterwards the ranch owner invited us into his home where his wife had prepared bread and coffee and tea for us. The Japanese left first, and when it was time for the Chileans and I to leave, I followed them out the door as they kissed the hosts goodbye. When I went to say goodbye though, the hosts tried to extend their hands while I leaned in for a kiss. I can only assume it’s because I’m a foreigner and they know foreigners don’t greet the same way, but it was awkward! At least they ended up giving me a Chilean goodbye once they saw I was accustomed to it.
You know what I told you about greeting a whole group of people… well, this happens every week with my fútbol (soccer) team. What’s amazed me though is that even when it’s inconvenient, they still make an effort and the kiss greeting still has to happen. I was sitting on the floor once when three girls arrived and they all stooped way down to kiss me. I didn’t even have the chance to get up and I felt bad! But they stooped for a couple other girls seated the same way without complaining. Just recently I met a small group of them at a metro station and we almost immediately got on the escalator to leave. I hadn’t had the chance to greet one girl as she had been at the ATM when I arrived, but when we were on the escalator and she a step above me, she suddenly turned around and leaned towards my face. I have to admit it did surprise me a bit, but I greeted her and all continued as normal.
What I still haven’t been able to get used to is the double kiss, which still always surprises me. They kiss both cheeks in Brazil and also in San Juan, Argentina (I’m sure it’s the same in many other places but these are the only two I have personally encountered). The entire time I was in Brazil it still threw me when people leaned in a second time. This also occured when I said goodbye to a man from San Juan, and I’m embarrased to have been clearly startled! They kept having to remind me that in their culture it’s two kisses.
What’s also funny is to see how foreginers have acclimated here and started doing this greeting quite comfortably even with each other. My Australian friend that I met here has always greeted me like this, and I will never forget the time I was getting out of a taxi and leaned toward her to kiss her goodbye. That was the first moment I realized I had ever intentionally leaned in towards another girl’s face. Even though it’s not a real kiss, it’s still very close and personal.
Also, every now and then someone will actually kiss your cheek. I recently had a male student do this to me and it surprised me a little bit. I had no idea what reason he could have for actually kissing me, but sometimes it just happens. Usually this is to show a little more affection or that you’re closer to someone, but when it happens unexpectedly it catches me off guard.
So all that to say, even though it has been different here, the greeting is something I will miss when I’m back home.
I talked to a British guy at a party about this once after we saw how newcomers would kiss everyone in the group, whether they knew them or not. We both decided that it was definitely an ice breaker and made it much easier to approach people that you didn’t know. You can easily start a conversation with anyone in the room because you’ve already kissed them all and introduced yourself! It’s much different from group gatherings in our cultures where you would have to find a reason to approach a stranger.
Also, remember that story I told you about beind kissed by association just because I was walking on the street with someone who ran into old friends? The kiss greeting is a good way to acknowledge everybody in the circle. I can remember countless times back home where I was in the middle of a conversation with someone when another friend of that person approached them and never even acknowledged me. Many times I wouldn’t even get the courtesy of eye contact, so I would just wait until they had finished talking and left, feeling a little awkward and invisible the whole time. That would never happen here. Even if you don’t speak the same language, you will still be acknowledged if you are the friend of a friend.
In a way, it can make people more friendly and it can break down barriers. When I kiss my guy friends here, I am not worried about being too close to them or being too touchy or whatever it may be. For example, if I meet a friend’s boyfriend back home, maybe he’ll shake my hand, maybe he’ll give me a nod when they leave, maybe on rare occasions I may get a hug. It always leaves this feeling of an undefined space between us that we have to be careful not to cross. It’s very impersonal and distant. Here, all boyfriends and husbands, fathers and uncles, brothers and cousins of a friend…they’ll all kiss you just the same as anyone else. Once a friend’s boyfriend here dropped us off at the airport together and after kissing her goodbye, gave me a hug and a kiss as well (of course, hers was a real kiss and mine was just the cheek). I love how simple and affectionate it is without being flirty or sexual in the least. I can tell you right now none of the American boyfriends of my friends would do that. Ever.
So when I got home the other evening and began to realize how different my interactions with guy friends will be back home, it just saddened me knowing there would be that invisible wall between us. For this reason, I love the latinos. All relationships are personal and intimate, but in a way that is very comfortable and normal without crossing any boundaries.
I’ll be seeing you friends from back home very soon now, which has made me really start to think about all these differences. I hope you might be able to understand this wonderful piece of culture one day. Oh, and I’m sorry if I kiss you.