Same-sex Smooching

FriendsThe “beso”.  It was one of the hardest things to get used to when I moved to Buenos Aires. Hetero men and women would greet others of the same sex with a kiss on the cheek.  My Argentine friends found it hilarious that on top of my gaffes in learning Spanish (I once asked for the local “place of pleasure” instead of asking for apartment storage space), I almost cringed whenever it was time to greet guys.  It was reminiscent of my freshman days in college when I had to force my reserved Scandinavian self to greet American classmates with hugs and loud, enthusiastic banter.  But the “beso” was even more of an invasion of space.  Luckily I’d had practice with the French “bisou” (kisses on both cheeks for the opposite sex) while studying in France so I had the mechanics down.  But the fact that men were involved was unsettling.

It should be said that the mere fact that straight men kissed each other in Argentina did not at all mean that they were effeminate in other ways. In fact, Argentine culture in general seemed to encourage alpha male behavior, complete with near-belligerent cursing and heckling in the stands at soccer games.  The “beso” was simply an accepted way to greet people, whatever their sex might be.

Of course, same-sex kissing is not at all limited to Argentina, a lot of cultures find the practice perfectly normal. South Eastern Europe and some countries of South Western Europe, Latin America and the Middle East find it completely acceptable.  In the Middle East (with the exception of some moderate Islamic countries) it is more acceptable for men to kiss each other on the cheek than for men to kiss women on the cheek in public.  (A topic for a different post would be Arab male-on-male hand holding that had George W. Bush feeling a little uncomfortable when Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah was visiting the US).

How do you adjust to something like same-sex kissing if you are from a different culture?  Dive in.  It’s just like language learning – you learn best by immersion.  In my case, I had to force myself the first few times.  Then the beso got easier.  It never felt completely natural but it certainly did not bother me after a few weeks of greetings.

The challenge can be to avoid Borat-scale awkwardness by remembering where you are. When I met my former Spanish tutor from Buenos Aires on a trip to Paris in May, the beso was gone, replaced by a hug.  That same greeting between old friends, if it had taken place in Northern Europe, could well have been a simple, if somewhat prolonged, handshake.  The problems creep in when you plant a manly kiss on Bubba at the Indy 500.  That could warrant a royal kicking of an entirely different set of cheeks.

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Bjorn Karlman

47 thoughts on “Same-sex Smooching”

  1. It really is a matter of remembering where you are, and who you’re with. In Serbia, where I grew up, it is customary for friends and relatives (not usual in business tho) to greet one another with 3 pecks on the cheek. Nothing sensual about it, just a way of saying hello to someone you know. And it cracks me up that people in the Us feel all weird about it, since in the US people would quite happily walk by a couple of guys full-on snogging in public. In Serbia, that really would earn you a beating…

  2. I didn’t know the “beso” was that hard for you hahahaa… you seemed to have got used to it easily. As Argentinean, I had never paid attention to this tradition of ours until my husband came as my boyfriend to Argentina and my brothers greeted him with a kiss. He almost pushed them away. Though Mexican, very latino, the “beso” was something exclusively reserved for women.

    Those traditions are something you, sometimes, do with uncomfort at first, but then get used to it while you are a foreigner. And as much as you get to travel and taste these particular “flavors” you get impressed but not frightened anymore.

    Since I had my baby I can hardly find time to read for myself other than “education”, “toddlers”, “nutrition” and all that stuff. I was glad I read this one, because it touched me.

    Your vision in this article is completely “global”. Allow me to congratulate you for that. Very open minded.

    Regards from the “besuquera” Argentina.


  3. It was hard for me as a girl to go back to Mexico and had to greet other girls with a kiss. Still kinda akward.. Ever thought it was hard for girls to (greet)kiss each other?

  4. I applaud you for diving right in! The only way to really experience, appreciate and begin to understand a culture is immersing yourself in it. I wish we could all be so brave! I kind of had the same thought as Johnny except for men, when I went back to Chile when I was in high school, I actually enjoyed kissing, of course I am also Hispanic, and my family is very open with affection. Lots of times I was like “awesome, I get to be kind of intimate with that really hot guy!!” of course for them it was not “intimate” just a greeting, and then of course there were those times I didn’t want to be so close to “suspicious characters” in that way! Now when I go back there is not so much internal dialogue about it, just something that is done when one greets another person.

  5. Ok, I’m laughing out loud here about the “planting a manly kiss on Bubba at the Indy 500″.

    Lots of “bisous” going on for me at the moment here in France (well, I’m in Switzerland right now, but I’ll be back there on Friday), but it’s kinda being curbed in because of Swine Flu. Did you know the Swine Flu is being spread the most rapidly in France out of all the European countries? That’s right. Organizations are being required by the government to post “Avoid swine flu” advice on their notice boards which includes avoiding bisous.

    Anyway. Yep, can be kind of awkward I guess, but not as much for girls since it’s not that weird for girls to give each other a kiss on the cheek. I get a lot of kisses from the French gal in my theatre group over here. I’ll probably even miss it when I leave. Sniff.

  6. Bjorn,

    Pretty sure that your title is misleading. I am not homoephoebic in the slightest bit and feel fairly comfortable with my sexuality and see nothing wrong with the French way of greeting. Not saying I would do it or practice it in the US, however, if I was greeted that way, I would not feel uncomfortable.

    Now if we are talking about men KISSING as your title implies, HELL NO its not ok. I don’t like public displays of affections for heterosexual couples or gays. I think it is inappropriate. (Not saying that I have not been guilty of it from time to time in a drunken stupor in my single days, LOL!). I guess I should get back to work now.

    Keep it up with the blogs…

  7. You are right on with greetings being part of a culture’s language. Those of us from a “hugging” culture may feel a little awkward with the “beso” at first but think about it the other way. An Argentine person comes over here and rather than a quick peck toward the other person’s cheek, the American steps in and smashes their body against the unsuspecting visitor. Full body contact with arms wrapped around the person seems to cross a few more intimate boundaries than a kiss. I think in American culture, our faces are thought to be personal space. You don’t see much cheek grabbing or patting here either, say compared to in Greece, but head out to a ball field and you’ll find a different type of cheek smacking. I wonder how the Argentinians would feel about that?

  8. I liked the ‘cheeks’ line at the end :p. Nice touch!

    I would be tempted to almost say that this is a non-issue. Tempted because the whole premise of the ‘beso’, or the hug, or even the handshake, are surely cultural symbols of greeting. So the beso in some latin American cultures is viewed with no more reserved hesitance than perhaps the traditional Japanese (with the high esteem they place in bowing) would have once viewed the handshake.

    However clearly this topic does strike a certain chord. Maybe its because of the natural disposition Anglo-Saxon etiquette usually demands from us (ie. physical reservedness in the company of others irrespective of sex – although this is magically removed with the introduction of a little Dutch courage!) or maybe its a deeper rooted uneasiness with the notion of perceived, or otherwise, homosexual appearances… I don’t know. All i know is I do a lot of high-fiving and alot of fist pumping and I wouldn’t have it any other way!

    Keep up the good work.

  9. I have a weird case: growing up Puerto Rican the “beso” was normal to me, but I had to learn to turn it on and off. I remember when, back before all things Latin were cool, non-Hispanics would look at me and my family/friends in a weird way and how difficult it was at times to remember that non-Hispanic folk really liked their personal space. Now I see all cultures (at least here at home in New York) black, white, asian and indian do the beso.

  10. The fact that I don’t feel right about putting my arm around my friend’s neck points that my image is important. But at the same time I have lost another aspect of my care for and my connection to that friend. Assuming, of course, that I have put my arm around his neck in the past. But my individuality, my image, my status and behavior become more important than the unseen connectedness to my close friends. I still kiss my father in the lips when I greet him. I still have a great trust for him and know that he cares much. I no longer kiss my brothers, alas the culture we are in (USA) works for us, and we are used to it. But I am more reserved with them on the personal level.
    Judas kissed Jesus. Would Jesus feel same amount of betrayal had Judas given him knuckles or a pat on a shoulder?

  11. The professor I work for has a lab in south america, as well as one in the US. In March, he had one of the Ph.D.’s from down there come up to Cali for some training. When they arrived I was the only one in the lab to greet them. The South American, of course, says hello to me with a kiss. The next day he came over to me to apologizes. Apparently, my prof told him that he was lucky that I, the token Latina, was the only one in that morning, because kissing as a greeting is frowned upon in the US. We had a good laugh, but I could tell he was super embarrassed. Poor guy.

  12. Hey, I’ve been meaning to ask you this question for a while: what do you know about non-salutation oriented same-sex smooching in Sweden? I had two Swedish girls (roughly 18 years-old apiece) inform me that same-sex smooching is not uncommon in closed social settings, like at parties and intimate gatherings. Both girls confirmed that they had–on several occasions–engaged in the strange activity. Perhaps its just something that they, like Jamie Foxx, can blame on the ‘a-a-a-a-al-al-co-hol’, but then again, perhaps its not. What say you, Swede?

  13. I remember doing a small ethnography paper, interviewing two of my friends from Singapore. One of them deciding to do her paper on Hispanics… I took her to the Spanish church, and she just about died with all the people trying to greet her with a hug or kiss! Very traumatic for her. Funny for me.

    Years later, I went to Hong Kong, where she was living then, but the German culture kicked in and I didn’t try and hug or kiss anyone. What threw me off was seeing teenage girls walking around holding hands… perfectly normal there.

  14. P.S.: Watch some Argentinian futbol/soccer, and you’ll see men kissing as one exits the field and the other one replaces him. =)

  15. heyhey

    not a big deal. as a korean, it’s totally out of character for me and will make me uncomfortable, but only because it’s something i’m not used to, but i don’t think it’s a big deal

  16. Valeria! Glad you found time to fit CultureMutt into your schedule of baby reading:) You were a great guide in Argentina. That was a lot of fun! Thanks for the hospitality when I was there and thanks for the feedback on the site. I hope to see you here a lot in the future!

  17. Johnny, have you fit an Argentina trip into your globetrotting? Well worth walking the down 9 de Julio if you like your women Argentine…

  18. hahaha… i have always really enjoyed watching people that take advantage of cultural situations that involve bodily contact… so awkward!

  19. Wow, hard to imagine France without the bisous… what happens with fondue – have they cut that out too for fear of Swine Flu?

  20. Thanks for the feedback Fred.. my blog titles are always a little bit of a gamble because you have got to be enticing without turning the blog into a scandalous tabloid… and I remember clearly the CUPS days and your real-time translation of American pop songs into English after a little run to Casino… you were good my friend…

  21. Tiffany!! Thanks a lot for the comment! Good to hear from you. And you are right, there are a lot of elements of American culture that get overlooked but actually are very forward – full-body hugging and ball field spanking included…

  22. Good point about anglo reserve evaporating with a healthy dousing… that was always the most intriguing thing about the UK party scene for me… suddenly the beso looked lame..

  23. Well, Swedes are known for at least wanting to define the fringe of the avant-garde. I am assuming that you are referring to casual, same-sex yet hetero smooching? I am not at all surprised that it happens but I haven’t been part of the Swedish social scene since my mid-teens so I don’t really know much about it. Any “real” Swedes out there care to comment?

  24. Funny how foreign environments can bring out certain sides of your culture that you never focus on at home… some kind of defense mechanism

  25. I’m from Guam and we love to pass every imaginable disease via kisses on the cheek though the younger males usually only kiss older males out of a show of respect. and we kind of do a cross between a sniff and a kiss (like the maoris). what has always struck me as strange would be the way that american men touch and spank each others asses. they won’t kiss but they’ll touch someone’s ass. riiiiiigggggghhhhhhhtttttt. no, i’m not talking about homosexuals. no, not at all. i’ve seen more guy on guy action at a basketball or football game than i’ve ever seen in any boys town.

  26. ball field spanking is getting a lot of play in this post’s comments… I’m thinking there should be an upcoming post dedicated to it especially…

  27. Ha, ha, reminds me of my husband returning home from trips to Russia. He’d walk in the front door, hug and kiss me and say “Thank god I’m home. I’m so tired of kissing men!”

    In the last 10 years I’ve observed that kissing amongst women in North America & the UK has really blossomed. It used to be very rare, but now it’s almost rude if you don’t do it. Will be interesting to see how much H1N1 influences things!

  28. Thanks for the comment Judy! And yes, H1N1 is certainly no respecter of custom… see Karin’s comments about its effect on the French above…

  29. And then there’s the ubiquitous “air kiss”, where you touch cheeks and make kissy noises. Had a female client do that to me yesterday. It’s like saying “I don’t like you well enough to actually put my lips on your face, so we’ll just brush cheeks and pretend.” It’s weird :-)

  30. Love this topic! I grew up where boys/men held hands, or had their arms around each other’s shoulders; where girls/women did the same. Greetings involved holding each other’s hands/arms for a long time as you caught up on all the events which you had missed out on in their/your life.

    I was 10 when we came to the States – and I noticed that boys didn’t hold hands – at all – not even their mom’s or dad’s hands! Upon inquiring of my mom for an explanation, she found herself having a hard time trying to explain to me why it was not *accepted* in the US, and that the same applied to girls. Suddenly, I felt very embarrassed that I still held my mom’s hand, but not knowing why the feeling of embarrassement was even there!

    When I went back overseas to visit my folks (after living here in the US for 20+ years), I had to fight back the “need” or strong urge to remove my hand from those of my former friends and to realise I was back in their culture (one I used to think was mine too) and that it was perfectly OK!

    Good reading!

  31. Excellent reflections Mutu! Growing up the way you did allows you to be culturally versatile in such a way that you use local greetings and other physical behaviors so as to best strengthen your relationships and improve your communication. This is extremely valuable because so much of success in communication relies on being aware of the nuances…
    And yes, don’t you love reverse culture shock when you return to what formerly was “home”!

  32. this brings back memories of the games the guys played in spain. i thought them(games) were a bit fem but natives were almost shocked at my mere mention of it and confessed they never thought the games were strange because were so used to them.

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