If you have ever left your birth-culture and spent any length of time in a host or second culture, you have likely come to realize that cultural norms and differences in customs can take some getting used to; a learning curve is to be expected. For some of us, the curve is less like a curve and more like… oh, I don’t know … a cliff.
Things as simple as how we greet one another can cause us to break into a cold sweat, even in a tropical environment.
Non-touchy people such as myself need to adjust accordingly to the traditions and rituals of the culture in which they hope to live, work, and build friendships.
Because it does not appear I will be leaving anytime soon, and because of my desire to be culturally sensitive, I have been forced to become more comfortable with the Haitian way of kissing (or bumping) cheeks upon greeting. I’d never go so far as to say that it feels natural to me, but I roll with it as best I can.
Every so often I might run into a person that does a two cheek greeting. I’m not going to lie, all that back and forth really throws me for a loop. I’ve never quite understood the rules of engagement because sometimes people full on kiss your cheek and other times they simply touch cheek to cheek. It is sort of like a cheek high-five. I don’t know when you are supposed to do one and when you are supposed to do the other. It is quite vexing, I know that much.
Just when I thought I had made the appropriate adjustments, I met a new group. Maybe you have met them? The three kisses crowd.
I give the side-eye to this group, because – THREE kisses?
That just seems excessive.
Gives me vertigo.
I’ve been doing some charting and graphing and I can confirm that greetings and goodbyes take one billion times longer … but to heck with that observation, what is time anyway?
One afternoon my teenage daughter’s boyfriend was over visiting her. He comes from the kiss-the-cheek-crowd so I always attempt to get with the program and follow the rules.
He was sitting down on the floor with my daughter when I leaned down to greet him. I fully expected him to remain stationary. I didn’t know he was going to move and I completely misjudged and overshot the distance between us as I approached for my culturally appropriate greeting.
In one terribly awkward slow-motion moment I missed his cheek, instead kissing below his cheek in the region commonly referred to as, the neck.
I wanted the earth to swallow me whole.
Embarrassed, I quickly exited the room. For the next several hours I hoped he didn’t think I meant to kiss his neck.
Creepy mom much?
According to Wikipedia:
A kiss is a common gesture of greeting, and at times a kiss is expected. Throughout all cultures people greet one another as a sign of recognition, affection, friendship and reverence. While hand shakes, hugs, bows, nods and nose rubbing are all acceptable greetings, the most common greeting is a kiss, or kisses, on the cheek. Cheek kissing is “a ritual or social gesture to indicate friendship, perform a greeting, to confer congratulations, to comfort someone, or to show respect.” Cheek kissing is most common in Europe and Latin America and has become a standard greeting in Southern Europe.
While cheek kissing is a common greeting in many cultures, each country has a unique way of kissing. In Russia, Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro the Netherlands and Egypt it is customary to “kiss three times, on alternate cheeks.” Italians usually kiss twice in a greeting and in Mexico and Belgium only one kiss is necessary. In the Galapagos women kiss on the right cheek only and in Oman it is not unusual for men to kiss one another on the nose after a handshake. French culture accepts a number of ways to greet depending on the region. Two kisses are most common throughout all of France but in Provence three kisses are given and in Nantes four are exchanged.
More than a year has passed now, and I fear that teenage boys are still walking around guarding their necks from me .
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Have you had your own awkward cultural mess-up moment? Let’s hear it.
Tara Livesay works as a midwife apprentice in Port-au-Prince, Haiti