“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” – G.K. Chesterton
When I first started traveling the world in 2006, I became intimately aware of the fact that most countries have strong opinions about the USA, from our political system all the way down to our food choices. I am a home-loving Ex-Pat and I’ve always defended my country where appropriate, especially when I confront over-generalizations, blatant resentment, and Either-Or /Half-Truth Fallacies.
In light of all the America Defending and Patriotism Swelling that’s occurred during my travels around the world, I was shocked to realize that the most recent round of Iffy American Commentary came from my own head.
I actively reside in Chile in South America, and my partner is Argentinean. I am surrounded by South American warmth on a daily basis (this of course refers to human interaction, because ‘warmth’ in Valparaiso, Chile is more theory than fact). If anyone stops by my house, or if I show up to a party knowing almost no one, or if there is a mild acquaintance met on the street, the protocol is as follows: Acknowledge everyone in attendance, and personally kiss on the cheek every person in the room/house/street area.
While this sometimes makes for lengthy greetings and goodbyes, it is standard protocol, socially-expected behavior just like shaking hands up north. I often catch side glances or whispers from Chileans or Argentinians when a new gringo arrives and fails to properly kiss/greet/say their goodbyes to everyone. But of course, it’s excused – he’s gringo, after all, a North Americaner, and they do things differently up there.
But this cultural norm sticks like saran wrap. It’s difficult for my fellow gringos to pick up, I think – at the very least, we are not used to kissing anyone on the cheek besides our lovers or parents. I used to try to avoid it when I first moved here. It was exhausting and strange and my god, I just wanna ditch this party. But no. It must be adhered to. Because although I tried to just do things my way, I began to feel like an asshole.
Because what good traveler does that? I tried to imagine if a foreigner showed up to Ohio and tried to live their days adhering to all of their regular customs back home. To those who have no concept of where that person comes from, their actions would surely flabbergast and befuddle. What is normal for one culture is NOT to be assumed normal in another. Cultural sensitivity plays a big role here – so I rolled over.
After a year abroad, I went back to American Soil for a 6-week summer visit. And as I visited friends and relatives houses, I found myself fighting the urge to make my way around the group and kiss and greet each person. In fact, I found it profoundly weird that nobody was making more of an effort to, you know, say hi to everyone as new people showed up.
Because, I remembered, we don’t do that. We appear from the sidelines of Wherever We Were Before, slink around until people notice us, wave in the distance to the others, talk to the host, sort of ignore the rest, and just generally quietly enter and leave.
I was just as shocked to realize that my first reaction to witnessing this was offense. It seemed rude. I felt like a freaking Chilean when a gringo shows up and just meanders around the room.
But no, I reminded myself. This is your own damn culture! This is normal! We greet family and best friends hands-down as a general rule, but loose acquaintances, mild friends, unknowns and the like – they might as well be non-existent in the scope of greeting culture.
As I have since returned to South America and am about to celebrate my second full year as an ex-pat, I’m realizing that this custom of warmth is one that won’t be shaken. I like acknowledging people, being acknowledged, and the feeling of fullness that comes with being a recognized component of a gathering. I think back to awkward parties, encounters and events in my life in the US where people show up and pretend not to see each other, especially if there is an awkward distance between them or loud noise or other factors, for no other reason than what I now see as a collective social anxiety in our culture.
Waving is easy to miss – catching someone’s eye doesn’t always work. But going right up to them and kissing them? Hi, I’m here, I see you, and I’ve greeted you. Done.
Every once in a great while, a large group of Americans gets together at my house or other places in town and I see these patterns emerge. We treat each other the same way as we’re used to back home – even if we’ve spent a lot of time knowing other cultures, or living in South America, or have perfected the cheek smooch, we don’t extend it to each other. And then those same pangs of awkward social interaction come back, compounded by the fact that we know that we’ve been living in Chile and should have greeted each other by now but haven’t yet it’s okay because we’re American but oh shit, I feel like an ass now but it’s definitely too late to do anything, crap let’s just continue standing here and not looking at them, maybe it’s like we never saw each other.
Recently, a non-American friend of mine here told me that, after a recent trip to the USA, their impression was that we “were not very warm”. I was initially hurt by this comment – what the fuck are you talking about is what I wanted to say, but instead I pointed out that while some regions might be different in terms of demeanor or approachability – say, Midwest versus East Coast – it’s all just generalizations and most people would be willing to answer a question or lend a hand or have a conversation, no matter who they are.
But I know what he was referring to when he said we are not ‘very warm’. In contrast to Latin America, we are not. He wasn’t saying we are mean, or bad, or jerks, or unfriendly. Warmth, overall, can be measured in other ways. We might not put our lips to your weird, unknown, possibly greasy cheek the second you step into the same room as us, but we’ll talk to you, get to know you, and offer a glass of water or help finding the post office or directions to the hotel if you need it. We do things our own way, because we’re Americans, and we’re our own country with our own set of how we do things and what’s normal. And, well, a relative cool approach to social interactions is just part of that mixed bag of cultural norms.
Now, as for my Argentinean partner acclimating to our cooler northern approach when he visits…? I can’t say how he’ll feel about that. I know it will be as strange for him as it was for me coming down south.
Who knows? Things change with time and exposure, I suppose. Including one’s own cultural preferences.
Photo Credit: Hyperbole and a Half