In a new column that aims to answer your questions about Colombian etiquette, customs, and a host of other things that might puzzle visitors to the country, Jazid Contreras valiantly takes up the role of agony uncle. This edition he gives you a Colombian guide to friendly physical contact.
I kissed one of my clients today when I apparently shouldn’t have. When should I kiss and when shouldn’t I?
– A broad from abroad
The way people greet each other can be vastly different from one country to another, and what might seem totally normal here can be terribly offensive somewhere else. As one who has had his fair share of embarrassing mishaps, I am well aware of how easy it can be to get things wrong when visiting foreign climes.
As a basic rule, physical contact is rarely inappropriate when greeting Colombians in informal situations. Of course there are exceptions – and degrees – of physical contact, so I’ve tried to give you a simple guide that will get you through most social situations.
The way Colombians greet is often warm, laborious and some may say over the top. We like to make sure that our appreciation for the other person doesn’t go unnoticed. So delivering hugs and kisses is not only acceptable but expected when greeting friends, family and even colleagues.
In fact, one might come off as rude (or at least distant) if one doesn’t give a friend a proper dose of physical contact. Some people actually question their own likeability when their acquaintances greet them without any touching.
There is one crucial exception for this rule, though: man-to-man kissing. Unlike Argentinians, Colombian males don’t usually kiss each other. However, a handshake and a hug are the norm when saying hi to your fellow bro.
So, how is it done? Bear in mind that Colombians are not used to the European-style double kiss. One peck on the right cheek is the way to go. First, make sure you are correctly positioned in front of the received by gently taking their elbow or shoulder. Then go for the kiss. Remember that you don’t need to press your lips against their face, just let your cheek touch theirs while quickly blowing a kiss to the air. Don’t let it last more than two seconds, and, above all, avoid involving any kind of bodily fluids in the transaction.
All of this might sound like a nightmare to a germaphobe. But there’s no reason to panic. In 2008, a leading study by the London School of Hygiene determined that a kiss on the cheek can be more sanitary than a handshake, because people’s faces aren’t nearly as filthy as the palms of their hands. Still, if you want to keep the facial contact to a minimum, you can always resort to the more hygienic fist bump.
Among co-workers, it is quite normal for Colombians to kiss and hug when there’s a minimum level of camaraderie. This is by no means mandatory. As it is a work environment, it’s OK to greet everyone with a loud “good morning” and just get to work. However, saying hi to each of your teammates by name is considered more polite. And, if you enter the office, you should not wait for others to greet you. Remember the golden rule: the one who arrives says hi and the one who leaves says goodbye.
When greeting superiors, do not kiss or hug them unless they explicitly show their intention to go beyond the formal handshake. Similarly, teachers should not kiss or hug their students.
On a related note, have you noticed how some Colombians have the awful custom of calling their boss ‘doctor’? This comes from an outdated culture of highly stratified organisations and there is no reason to follow it. Addressing them as señor or señora is more than enough. This also applies for in-laws and older people when meeting them for the first time.
So, don’t be shy! Kiss away and hug away! If you follow these instructions, you can’t go far wrong. Plus, as many of my foreign friends have discovered, you can always apologise if you feel like you overdid it.
If you have any questions about Colombian customs, ask Jazid by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org