US/Portugal culture: hugs and kisses

I was browsing my hometown paper the other day and stopped on this eye-catching headline:

Out-of-control hugging leads to ban at Portland’s West Sylvan Middle School

A ban on hugging? Sure enough:

The hugs were out of control at West Sylvan Middle School.

Students could not pass each other in the hallway without a hug, the principal said. The girls were hugging one another all the time. Kids were late to class because of the hugs.

Classes would end, middle schoolers would eye a classmate at the other end of the hallway, “they’d scream, run down the hallway and jump in each other’s arms,” Principal Allison Couch said.

It was, Couch said, a virus of hugs.

So the principal banned hugs on the school campus in late February.

This got me to thinking about the very different cultural attitude that Americans and Portuguese have towards hugs and kisses. We Americans generally don’t get physical in our greetings, unless we’re saying hello to a relative or good friend we haven’t seen in a while. We prefer a fairly large bubble of personal space, and get uncomfortable when this space is breached. That’s why a sudden outbreak of hugs draws attention at a school, because it’s against the cultural norm (which is precisely why it would appeal to teenagers). Many of the hugs at this middle school were not a gesture of friendship. For instance, one 7th-grade boy found himself being hugged by two 8th-grade girls, whom he knew did not like him. The hugs were meant to be mocking. Others were meant to incite a sexual response, as girls hugged boys to see how quickly they could arouse them. Some students felt uncomfortable with the rampant hugging, but didn’t know how to say no when everyone else was doing it. Which makes this the first time I’ve ever heard of hugging being subject to peer pressure.

That peer pressure would be much harder to apply here in Portugal, because the physical boundaries are so different. The Portuguese have a slightly smaller personal space bubble than Americans, but more importantly, they breach it all the time — with kisses, not hugs. And those kisses can incorporate an entire language of silent meaning.

For instance, if my friend introduces me to another friend, the appropriate response would be to lean forward for two air kisses while touching cheeks — first my right cheek, then my left. (Yes, there is an order to this, and if you get it wrong you look like an idiot.) Though the cheek press feels hugely personal to an American, it’s actually the most impersonal greeting in the Portuguese kiss lexicon.

If I’ve already met that friend, or if I’m greeting someone I haven’t seen in a while, then I can add the additional intimacy of grasping the other person’s shoulder or upper arm during the kiss.

The next step up in intimacy would be to lightly rest my hands on the other person’s hips. That’s for a good friend.

For a good friend or relative I haven’t seen in forever, we might reach out to each other, clasp hands tightly, and use that grip to pull each other in for the kiss. In this instance, the cheek press is usually much more firm, and I might actually turn my head to plant a real kiss on the cheek. This is the level at which hugs can also be incorporated. The Portuguese do share this in common with Americans — hugs are most often at the upper level of intimacy.

Then there’s the snob kiss — that’s when two people share a kiss only on one side. This is limited to people who consider themselves too socially elevated to engage in the more common dual kiss.

All of these rules apply for women greeting women, women greeting men, and men greeting women. For men greeting men, a handshake will do. Unless the greeting is between family members, in which case kiss rules apply — but only for certain family members! Uncles and nephews, for instance, or grandfathers and grandsons, but not between cousins.

When I first moved here, I didn’t know any of this. The whole air kiss thing was incredibly awkward and I never knew what to do with my hands. Plus I didn’t know you weren’t actually supposed to kiss the person unless you were quite intimate. Oops. It makes sense when you think about it, though — how can two people kiss each other on the cheek at the same time? It’s anatomically impossible, hence the air kisses.

The Portuguese understand that we Americans are weird about kissing, so they will generally offer to shake your hand instead. If you want to instantly raise yourself in their estimation, give them a proper kiss and you’ll see an appreciative smile when you pull back.

After living here for three years, the Portuguese ease of intimacy has long since worn down my American reticence, and I count that as a positive influence of their culture. Humans are a social species, and holding ourselves apart as we Americans do can lead to an unfortunate discomfort with even basic physical contact. Which is why the hugging at Sylvan Middle School could reach the level of a major behavioral issue, warranting administrative interference and a school-wide ban. I really can’t see that happening over here.

Note: While attempting to find an image of an air kiss to illustrate this post, I stumbled across a British “instructional video” on how to air kiss. It’s a hilarious representation of the Brit view of continental European air kisses. I’m going to have to try calling out “Darling!” next time. (Click the image to go to the video.)

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About oregon expat

Socialist heathen and Mac-using writer who enjoys pondering science, politics, well-honed satire (though sarcastic humor can work, too) and all things geeky.
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7 Responses to US/Portugal culture: hugs and kisses

  1. Jorge says:

    what a perfect explanation of the differences between our cultures. i still remember meeting my upstairs neighbour in SF and she’d inevitably say something like: “love your Portuguese double-kiss thing!”

  2. Linda Briganti says:

    I married into an Italian family and committed numerous offenses while learning the ropes. The worst being not kissing hairy chinned old crones with some sort of connections to the family. Since I didn’t know any Sicilian I thought I was just a bystander to a conversation, not realizing I was being introduced. We lived in California and every time we went East I had to get up to speed again. Also, I came from a pretty non-demonstrative family. My Dad was startled, but pleased, when I started giving him the hugs and kisses. I think the French have a double and a triple kiss and you have to when each applies.

  3. Inge says:

    Here in Belgium, there is even a difference between this for the people of Flanders and Wallonia. It’s fun to see the differences in the two parts of my family.

  4. syrin says:

    Your description of the so called “air kisses” is pretty funny, as is the video, although I have to say that this video and the title make it sound like we don’t actually touch when we kiss, which is weird: those types of kisses, where the cheeks never touch, are usually reserved to the “snob people”.

    Still, it’s a very funny representation of the cultural differences between our two countries. ;D

  5. Kugai says:

    One of the funniest things I ever saw here happened when I was bored one day and went down to the Museum Of New Zealand a couple of years back.

    I don’t know what exactly was going on, but I’m assuming it was a group of visiting American academics or some such. They were being given a formal Maori welcome to the Museum, including the Hongi. For those of you unfamiliar with this, this is when both parties involved basically touch noses – a traditional form of Maori greeting.

    Watching the reaction of some of the Americans – probably first time visitors – was chuckle inducing.

  6. Ana_ñ says:

    What a great post, from the rebellious students to the hilarious air kissing video.
    The gestures, per se, are void of meaning. Cultural knowledge allows us to interpret and use them properly.

  7. some of us live in a space capsule most of the time…i mean mentally, but also, we don’t ban hugs and kisses in Canada…
    This got me to thinking about why would a Portuguese not prefer hugs and kisses in Quebec instead ?

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