Contact vs. No Contact Cultures: A Guide to Touching

If you’re a man, how would you greet another man? Probably just a shake of the hand, right?

How would you greet a woman? If you’re from the West, probably the same.

You’d offer your hand without a second thought. But, considering the different body contact norms across cultures, you shouldn’t assume sameness when it comes to greetings.

Sometimes, cross-cultural matters of gender are quite sensitive and, depending on the culture, even same-gender greetings may require some specific behaviors.

If you don’t want to do something taboo in your new culture, as a monkey, watch and learn. Or, better yet, prepare yourself beforehand by reading up on gender norms in this “guide to touching.”

Touching Across Genders

In certain cultures, particularly in traditional ones, touching when greeting is only acceptable when of the same gender.

Generally, same-gender contact (male-to-male and female-to female) is acceptable in many cultures. But what about male-to-female contact?

Physical contact between men and women in African countries and in Muslim majority countries is often seen as taboo.

Moreover, in traditional societies, PDA is unacceptable, and you’ll rarely see a man and a woman holding hands in public or greeting each other with physical contact.

In some regions, the latter is acceptable if the man and woman are family.

Left Hand/Right Hand

You should also consider which hand you greet someone with.

If you are left handed, and normally reach out to shake with your dominant hand, hold up a minute.

When in Africa or Muslim majority countries, many will consider this left-handed shake disrespectful, because the left hand is considered the “dirty” hand.

Because clean water for hand-washing isn’t always readily available in some regions, tasks in these cultures are separated between the left and right, with the left hand being responsible for dirty tasks…even cleaning oneself after using the toilet.

Not only that, but in Islam, a preference is always given to the right hand.

DohaNews states why:

“This follows in the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad, who favored his right hand for such actions [eating meals and greeting people].”

When Muslims perform wadu – purifying themselves ritually before prayer – they follow a sequence while washing, always prioritizing the right side.

Imam Talib Shareef told PBS:

“That cleanliness is a process. It starts with your intentions. In basic terms it’s, ‘I intend to make the ablution in preparation to stand in obedience before my Lord.’”

Being as the right hand is given such preference, touching or greeting someone with the left hand would be considered very rude, regardless of whether or not the right hand is busy at the time.

Knowledge of these differences in cross-gender contact and right hand/left hand norms can make the difference between success across cultures or a terrible first impression.

To Kiss Or Not to Kiss?

A peck on the cheek, locking lips, snogging, necking, playing tonsil hockey.

90 percent of the global population practices some form of kissing or another.

And, yet, cultural values and norms dictate where and when and why and who we kiss.

Last week, we talked about cultural norms and appropriate touching. Today, we’ll discuss one of the most plainly visible cultural behaviors in this realm: kissing.

Greetings

As we mentioned last week, Spanish women often greet with a kiss on both cheeks. Spanish men, however, do not normally greet other men this way. Cross-gender kissing is a greeting strictly reserved for women.

Travel to Eastern Europe, and you’d find there are no restrictions with the cheek kiss; men and women, alike, greet each other as such. A kiss on both cheeks is commensurate with a handshake.

Another cultural greeting comes in the form of the “Eskimo kiss.” This is a kiss that looks like rubbing noses.

The “kiss” is actually a Canadian Inuit tradition called a kunik. However, a kunik is probably not what you think.

Communications Director of the Avataq Cultural Institute in Montreal, Taqralik Partridge, told Esquire:

“Inuit do not touch noses end to end or rub them back and forth against each other. We place our nose over the place we intend to kunik, press our nostrils against the skin, and breathe in, causing the loved one’s skin or hair or any other part to be suctioned against our nose and upper lip.”

The intention with a kunik is to breathe in the smell of your loved one. These norms illustrate the Inuit culture’s values.

Where Kissing is a Crime

Some cultures prohibit kissing in specific circumstances.

For instance, in many parts of the world, PDA is highly taboo. And in some places, kissing in public is not only “frowned upon,” it’s illegal.

You might expect that in cultures with stricter cultural values and norms, like the Middle East or North Africa. But, guess what? Kissing is also illegal (on the books, at least) in some parts of the U.S.

In Hartford, Connecticut, it was made illegal for husbands to kiss their wives on Sundays. And in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a law was put in the books that prohibited strangers from kissing.

And what about unwanted kisses?

Snopes ran an article about English gentleman, Thomas Saverland, who apparently needed to learn that “no means no” the hard way.

In 1837, Saverland forcibly kissed Miss Caroline Newton at a party. Newton wasn’t having it, so she bit off a chunk of his nose.

According to the Bell’s New Weekly Messenger published on April 30, 1837, when Saverland took her to court, the judge was not sympathetic to his case, ruling:

“When a man kisses a woman against her will, she is fully entitled to bite off his nose, if she so pleases.”

These strangely specific instances are obviously regional and are likely not enacted nowadays. But the fact that they ever existed just goes to show how mores can become laws in certain cultures. And it also illustrates how cultural mores can evolve over time.

Sometimes, it takes years and even decades for laws to catch up to changing cultural values. And when values change, norms – like kissing habits – often follow.

Next week, we’ll delve deeper into sexual mores to see how various cultures view the act of locking lips.

How Culture Shapes Our World

You woke up this morning and ate a breakfast of eggs and toast without consciously realizing that breakfast was culture.

You dressed, got ready, did your hair, suited up without realizing that style is culture.

You went to work by metro, jostled in between a man in sneakers and sweatpants and a woman in a pantsuit, both on their smartphones, without realizing that mode of transportation, personal space, and gender equality are culture.

You sat in on a morning meeting, putting forth your ideas, your boss nodding along, without realizing that business and hierarchical structures are culture.

You chatted with your colleagues about the latest episode of Game of Thrones without realizing communication and entertainment are culture.

Although culture can appear in the form of tangible things – fashion, entertainment, food, etc. – our own culture is, for the most part, invisible. We don’t often say, “Hey, look – there’s culture!” We breathe it without thinking about it.

And, yet, culture shapes everything in our world.

The Not-So-Invisible Shapes of Culture

Being that culture is so alive and vibrant, it’s not so much that you don’t see culture or know it’s there. The thing is, you’re often blind to your own culture, until it’s contrasted with others.

For instance, here are a few cultural differences. Consider your own culture’s preferences in contrast with those below:

  • Greetings – a handshake in America, a kiss on both cheeks in Italy, a bow in Japan
  • Breakfast – a croissant in France, bread and honey in Morocco, fried noodles in China
  • Common mode of transport – a car in Los Angeles, the Underground in London, a bicycle in Amsterdam
  • Punctuality – extremely punctual in Switzerland, very late in Thailand, punctual in business/not so much in personal matters in Chile
  • Sports – hockey in Canada, cricket in India, football basically everywhere else in the world

These are just some of the ways in which cultures differ. Now, imagine yourself trying to integrate some of these foreign cultural preferences into your life.

Cross-Cultural Understanding

Most of the things around you are culture, from what you eat to what you watch to what you wear, from how you get around to how you think and speak. Apart from your genetic material, culture is everything that shapes who you are and how you view the world.

Knowing all this, in order to integrate into another culture, you must make an effort to stop Viewing Others Through Your Own Culture-Tinted Glasses.

Next week, I’ll provide tips on how to do just that. Stay tuned.