One thing that I wasn’t prepared for or even thought about prior to studying abroad was the issue of personal space. Generally speaking, here in the United States personal space is one of those things that is an universally-known, unspoken rule. Around each of us is this invisible circle usually about three feet in radius. Everyone is mindful of their own circle and usually of others’ as well. The big no-no is when someone’s circle is violated or invaded. What I didn’t know before going abroad was that not everyone knows the rule or knows that there is such a thing as personal space.
Sure, personal space is invaded all the time. You can’t really function without someone at some point being closer than three feet from you. Public transit is a good example of a time and place when people are crossing over that threshold; in most cases it is tolerated. But the idea of strangers meeting for the first time, embracing each other, and exchanging air kisses seems crazy. Actions like those are reserved for family, close friends, and lovers, right? Well, not everywhere in the world.
My first experience with the ‘greeting kisses’ was actually here on US soil. The kisser was a friend visiting from Germany whom I hadn’t seen in about six months. I arrived at the house where he was staying and when he opened the door he bent down and kissed me on both cheeks. My lack of knowledge about how people from other parts of the world may greet one another caused me to totally misconstrue the situation. I had always crushed on him and I thought he might have had some feelings for me too. I mean who double kisses a girl they don’t like? Apparently, many.
It actually wasn’t until my second major moment of greeting kisses that I realized what really happened that first time (and it would have saved me a lot of time spent over-analyzing – ha). The next set of greeting kisses came while I was in the Netherlands. A Czech boy from my exchange student mentor group and I were hanging out at a coffee shop on a boat in one of Utrecht’s canals. He greeted me when I arrived and as he leaned in I flinched away. In my head I chastised myself as I had recently had a conversation with a French girlfriend about the whole greeting thing. I wanted to be more open to it, but clearly 20 years of conditioning couldn’t be wiped away so easily. Fortunately, the boy was very understanding, particularly as he had spent some time in the United States.
I am happy to say that by the time I was studying in London, I was much more aware and open to the greeting embrace and kisses. Becoming best friends with a Mexican and an Italian-Columbian expedited my progress. By the end of my twelve months, I even had little or no issues initiating the embraces. However, I still refrained with fellow Americans.
Upon returning home the issue of personal space was probably the first to go back to ‘normal.’ There are times when I do miss the more intimate connection made with the embrace rather than the usual detached and isolated way of presenting ourselves to potential new friends via a handshake or nod of the head. But regardless of your stance on personal space, remember and be prepared that others you encounter while studying abroad may not share your view, or – more likely – not even be aware there may be an issue.