To hug or not to hug?
If you have a Latin American friend you have probably noticed by now that we tend to touch each other a lot. Or maybe more than you are used to. It is one of those cultural differences that seems exotic, but that may generate some awkward moments.
I have been in Canada for a year and a half already and still I encounter those uncomfortable situations where, while saying hello, I take the extra step to kiss a cheek, and the other person takes a step back protecting their personal space. Now I just use my Latino card and say something like “I will show you how we say hello”. However, for all of us this situation is pretty embarrassing.
After a few of these encounters, I started to think why we hug so regularly. Probably, the most accurate reason is that touching and kissing is just a consensual and arbitrary convention inherited from the Spanish culture. However, I find that answer kind of boring. What I really believe is that hugging and kissing actually reflects one basic feature of human language.
If we understand communication as a circuit (where one persons emits a message, the other person receives it, there is a context and a code, etc.), there is a necessary step in any human communication act: it is essential to check that the channel (the physical transition medium) is working. When we are face to face, that is kind of easy, only a nod or a waving hand is enough. When we are talking on the phone it becomes more important. We need to ensure that the other person is listening at the other side of the line, that is why we ask “hello?”. The same process occurs when we encounter somebody and start any kind of communication exchange, we start by checking that everything is working: hi!
Nevertheless, to greet somebody also has a second purpose, and it has to do with what we call manners: saying hello implies recognizing the existence of the other. This may sound trivial, but that is why ignoring somebody on the street may seem so rude. By not saying hello we are negating the presence of the other.
Now, what does this have to do with Latinos touching each other? Well, what better way to say to the other “you are here, I recognize your presence, lets start talking” than acknowledging the physical existence of each other? In other words, to hug and kiss means to ensure and recognize the bond you are creating.
OK, this may be too elaborate to explain something simple. However, that is what I feel when I enter a room and I only get a cold “hello” from people. My existence is not fully recognized. I like to hug and kiss, I think it makes me more human and it makes my relationships more real. And besides the existential reflection about it, it is a nice practice in cold countries like Canada. I recommend you start doing it. And if you want to experience it personally, go to Latin America – we hug for free!