I was hanging out with a group of people in a pub last week and the subject came around to Italian salutations.
You may remember my first post on the subject.
The evening was winding down and some people were getting up to leave. They came over to say goodbye to me, R, another Italian guy, and a Mexican guy we had just met that night.
I shook hands with one of the guys who was leaving without rising from my chair because I was tired. R raised his eyebrows when he saw that and mimicked a staid, expressionless person shaking hands with utmost seriousness, and then said, “Sei americaaaanaaaaa!” (“You’re Ameeeericaaan!”)
So I shook the guy’s hand, so what? I thought. But since I’m a girl, and the guy is a guy, and we are in Italy, we were supposed to kiss on both cheeks since we have met before and this was a casual social setting. Apparently, the handshake was the kind of out-of-place thing that an Italian would notice right away.
Feeling more collaborative, when next a girl came over to say goodbye, I got up and kissed her on both cheeks, which was normal even though I’d never seen her before.
At that point everyone had gone but us four. R, the Italian and I had been talking in Italian, which the Mexican guy doesn’t speak, so we clued him into the conversation in English. “We’re talking about ways to say goodbye and how sometimes people don’t know what to do.”
The Italian became animated and asked, “Here in Italy, is it shake hands, hug, kiss, two-handed guy handshake, guy handshake with shoulder pat, one kiss, two kisses… and which cheek do you kiss first?”
“Yeah,” I added, cringing. “If you go left first, while the other person goes right, you end up aiming for a kiss on the mouth.” R waggled his eyebrows, then thought about that for a minute, trying to remember which direction he heads for first. It’s so automatic that he’s not even aware of it. “It’s the right side first,” I said, with the awareness for details that a foreigner picks up, and he went though a mock handshake-kiss routine to check, and then agreed.
On one of the final days of my sister’s two-week trip to see me last year, a trip that was filled with Italian people-meeting and double cheek-kissing, I mentioned to her that people kiss the right cheek first. “Thanks for telling me that now,” she said, and I remembered how much I blundered when I first arrived in Italy.
The Mexican guy was just starting to navigate the mysterious ways of the Italians (and was amazed at the “code” of hand gestures, with each one having a distinct meaning), but had plenty to say about Americans and their ways of greeting each other. He had lived in Virginia for six years when he was a student and had had time to observe how things are done in the States.
While we were talking about Italian kissing and hugging and what to do when, his bewildered observation of Americans was that “Americans don’t do anything.” He imitated an American saying “Hi, nice to meet you,” with a straight face while holding up one hand in a non-moving wave.
I didn’t agree with everything he said, but it was interesting to see Americans’ habits from an outside point of view. It was even more enlightening since I have gotten used to many Italian ways of doing things, which can make me view my country’s ways with the eyes of an outsider. And when I return to the States (and vice versa), I go through an adjustment period in which I switch (not 100% successfully) from one mentality to the other.
After having gotten used to greeting people the Italian way, I saw my relatives at a Christmas party when I went to the US over the holidays. They came over to hug me hello and I automatically moved in to kiss their cheek in an Italian two-cheek kiss. It felt weird and I realized they were just hugging me, so I stopped myself in time before actually kissing anyone. Still, I probably got a little too close for comfort, since these kinds of hugs are pretty reserved.
Then when I got back to Italy and I saw my roommate for the first time, at the same time she went to kiss me, I put my arms around her to give her a hug, since I had just gotten used to hugging all over again. The result was a weird Italian kiss with my arms around her. I hope she didn’t notice.
As we were getting ready to call it a night in the pub that evening, the Mexican talked about how Mexicans are more demonstrative than Americans.
When he meets a girl for the first time in Mexico, he’s used to shaking her hand and then kissing her on one cheek. He automatically tried to do that with girls he met when he went to the US, and they backed up, alarmed, with a look on their face that said “Whoa, get away from me!”
The Italians listened and agreed since Mexico and Italy are alike in the respect that people are much more touchy-feely in both of those countries than they are in the US.
The notion of personal space is certainly different. In Italy people slap or touch each other for emphasis while talking (I’ve even seen guys sitting next to each other at a table touching the other’s thighs while speaking). R demonstrated how he taps people with the back of his hand near where their collarbone and shoulder meet when he gets to the important part of what he’s saying. I think all this would be an infringement on an American’s personal space.
I learned as a teenager in the US that if a guy touches you when he’s speaking to you, it means he’s interested in you romantically. For example, if he leans over and touches your arm a few times while you’re having a conversation, that’s a big clue that he’s into you. Chatting in the pub, I had a light bulb moment when I realized that this can only be a “big clue” if usually no one ever touches anyone!
The Mexican guy said that after his initial experiences in the US, he had to train himself not to get to “intimate” with foreigners. As soon as he said that, the two Italians started nodding enthusiastically in agreement, having experienced the same thing in their time abroad.
Before going our separate ways that night, the Mexican guy shook my hand (“Because I’m American,” he said), and then shook hands with both Italian guys while making an exaggerated show of staying back and keeping his hands to himself.
There’s a lot to learn (and laugh about) about how to greet people in different countries. A seemingly simple thing such as saying hello teaches us a lot about the culture we are immersed in and the comfort levels of the people. I even appreciate it when I make blunders, because it’s a good way to step outside of myself and notice more accurately what people do. Learn by experience, as they say.