One of the first things that most visitors to Brazil notice is that Brazilians greet each other with a kiss on the cheek (one or two, depending on the region). And most of us ex-pats get used to that pretty quickly.
But the REAL problem is…
How do you greet someone from your OWN COUNTRY when you meet them IN BRAZIL?
Among fellow ex-pats or long-term visitors, it’s no problem. We kiss. But there are other situations where it’s not so clear-cut. One day, Christian and I were walking home when we ran into an American girl who we knew casually from capoeira. The girl’s mother was visiting, and she called us over to introduce us.
Knowing that not every American is comfortable with invasion of their face space immediately upon meeting someone, and not knowing how “Brazilianized” the mother had become on her short visit, I went for a handshake. The mother took my hand and shook it – but then pulled me in for a kiss. I was taken by surprise, but went with the flow and gave her the classic Bahian double-cheek kiss.
(Just to make things clear for anyone who hasn’t been to Brazil – go for their right cheek first. That means start to your left. You can thank me later after you’ve avoided the really awkward situation of going to the wrong side and nearly nailing the other person on the lips.)
Later, Christian laughed at me: “Why were you all stiff and distant? Did you not want to kiss the girl’s mother?”
Me: “I was trying to respect the mother since I didn’t know if she was comfortable with kissing me, since that’s not what we do in the States!”
Christian: “But we are not in the States.”
Me: “I know, but some Americans like their personal space and would be weirded out by an attempt at a kiss, and since I didn’t know how uptight (or not) this woman was, I decided to err on the side of not kissing.”
Later that week, I was walking back from the grocery store when I ran into a friend who had been at our wedding. Not wanting to be the “cold” American, and figuring I was on safe ground since he was Brazilian, I went for the cheek kiss – and almost collided with his outstretched hand. He had been going for the handshake. I was already too close, but he is taller and didn’t stoop down to kiss me – so we ended up doing a weird half-hug.