a.k.a. personal space does not exist in Brazil.
How many times have I heard “Americans are so cold!”? Each time, I object. Not all Americans are cold. I don’t mind hugging and kissing — after all, I come from an Italian-American family. We’re very touchy-feely.
Or so I thought.
At some point in the past year, I turned into that icy cold America who nods and waves from a safe distance instead of being within kissing range any time I walk into the gym. In equal measure, my facial expressions have begun to give me away each time someone touches my arm for emphasis when talking with me. I now keep my arms folded and my foot primed to step back another meter at any given point in time.
Boundaries don’t exist in Brazil.
Walking down the street and a stranger is coming your way? An American practically leaps to the other side of the road so as to avoid even the hint of a brush of the shoulders. A Brazilian practically leans in to get a taste of your body heat.
Standing in the aisle at the grocery store, trying to figure out what to buy when another shopper comes down the lane? An American says “excuse me” and waits for you to scoot your butt all the way in so they can comfortably walk past. A Brazilian barely takes heed and basically gives you a surprise full-body hug in the process of getting to the other side.
Talking to a friend and want to make sure they’re paying attention to an important part of your story? An American says “Hey! Seriously, listen to this.” and carries on, hoping their audience’s mind isn’t wandering elsewhere. A Brazilian grasps your arm so that you are now literally chained to the conversation, lovingly at least.
At first, in my early visits, I thought, “How nice, people are so affectionate here.” Nowadays, Gustavo laughs at me because every time someone leans in for a cheek kiss or touches me, my eyes scream “Why?” Half of our conversations are me asking why it’s necessary to touch me so much in the course of a 10-minute conversation or why we have to kiss when we meet friends and then do it all over again 2 minutes later when we leave. Why?
On a related note, to my Cariocas: I know, I do, that you do two kisses here. I know the one kiss is everywhere else in Brazil, especially São Paulo. But why oh why do you sometimes throw a curveball and give me only one kiss and then pull me in for a hug so that I almost accidentally kiss you on the lips like once every four times we see each other? Then when I try to do the same to you, you tell me “No, they only do one kiss in São Paulo silly!”? You have no idea how confusing this is and how uncomfortable I look on the other side of our hug.
In all honesty, I appreciate the intimacy of this type of affection. Well, maybe not all of the time, but sometimes. It has a way of equalizing people that speaks very much to the openness of Brazilian culture.
On a very concrete level, a lot of people don’t touch me because they know I’m American and they’re afraid: afraid I may be offended, I may judge them, of making me feel awkward. Because of that, I feel separated. If I touch a stranger’s forearm when thanking them for directions, it’s because I feel we’re on the same level. Without that reaffirming touch, sometimes I’m reminded that I’m seen as being on a different level than others. (Whether that’s lower or higher, I never really can tell.)
In other words, maybe I’ll stand for 1 foot of personal space and a little more hugging when I go back to the States.