In a new column that aims to answer your questions about Colombian etiquette, customs, and a host of other things that might puzzle visitors to the country, Jazid Contreras valiantly takes up the role of agony uncle. This edition he gives you a Colombian guide to friendly physical contact.
I kissed one of my clients today when I apparently shouldn’t have. When should I kiss and when shouldn’t I?
– A broad from abroad
The way people greet each other can be vastly different from one country to another, and what might seem totally normal here can be terribly offensive somewhere else. As one who has had his fair share of embarrassing mishaps, I am well aware of how easy it can be to get things wrong when visiting foreign climes.
As a basic rule, physical contact is rarely inappropriate when greeting Colombians in informal situations. Of course there are exceptions – and degrees – of physical contact, so I’ve tried to give you a simple guide that will get you through most social situations.
The way Colombians greet is often warm, laborious and some may say over the top. We like to make sure that our appreciation for the other person doesn’t go unnoticed. So delivering hugs and kisses is not only acceptable but expected when greeting friends, family and even colleagues.
In fact, one might come off as rude (or at least distant) if one doesn’t give a friend a proper dose of physical contact. Some people actually question their own likeability when their acquaintances greet them without any touching.
There is one crucial exception for this rule, though: man-to-man kissing. Unlike Argentinians, Colombian males don’t usually kiss each other. However, a handshake and a hug are the norm when saying hi to your fellow bro.
So, how is it done? Bear in mind that Colombians are not used to the European-style double kiss. One peck on the right cheek is the way to go. First, make sure you are correctly positioned in front of the received by gently taking their elbow or shoulder. Then go for the kiss. Remember that you don’t need to press your lips against their face, just let your cheek touch theirs while quickly blowing a kiss to the air. Don’t let it last more than two seconds, and, above all, avoid involving any kind of bodily fluids in the transaction.
All of this might sound like a nightmare to a germaphobe. But there’s no reason to panic. In 2008, a leading study by the London School of Hygiene determined that a kiss on the cheek can be more sanitary than a handshake, because people’s faces aren’t nearly as filthy as the palms of their hands. Still, if you want to keep the facial contact to a minimum, you can always resort to the more hygienic fist bump.
Among co-workers, it is quite normal for Colombians to kiss and hug when there’s a minimum level of camaraderie. This is by no means mandatory. As it is a work environment, it’s OK to greet everyone with a loud “good morning” and just get to work. However, saying hi to each of your teammates by name is considered more polite. And, if you enter the office, you should not wait for others to greet you. Remember the golden rule: the one who arrives says hi and the one who leaves says goodbye.
When greeting superiors, do not kiss or hug them unless they explicitly show their intention to go beyond the formal handshake. Similarly, teachers should not kiss or hug their students.
On a related note, have you noticed how some Colombians have the awful custom of calling their boss ‘doctor’? This comes from an outdated culture of highly stratified organisations and there is no reason to follow it. Addressing them as señor or señora is more than enough. This also applies for in-laws and older people when meeting them for the first time.
So, don’t be shy! Kiss away and hug away! If you follow these instructions, you can’t go far wrong. Plus, as many of my foreign friends have discovered, you can always apologise if you feel like you overdid it.
If you have any questions about Colombian customs, ask Jazid by emailing us at [email protected]
Hi Jazid, I’m from Cape Town South Africa. I met the most amazing man from your country. I was his driver for a couple of days when he arrived in Cape Town on business. I took an instant liking and a bit of a crush if it’s not more towards him. This doesn’t happen to me as I’m a very strong person where I can control my feelings as I am a married woman. For some reason this handsome Colombian man came along and just broke all the rules in my book. For starters I can’t stop thinking about him which is out of my character and he doesn’t even know how I feel. I’m trying so hard not to think of him but it’s not easy. The day he departed to fly back home, I was the driver again. I made it my duty to take him to the airport myself just to see him again. We arrived at the airport, I stopped and we got out of my vehicle. I reached out my hand to greet him and he basically grabbed me very very gently and hugged me. I was so taken aback as I never hugged another man even a handshake as it’s against my religion as a Muslim women. But believe me I felt like I didn’t want to let go. It happen so quick but it felt so good because I have this crush on him and so unaware. I know nothing will come of my crush as his in Colombia and I’m in South Africa. If only I could be with him I would really tell him how I feel. He is a real true innocent gentleman that is not aware of this South African lady that’s so crazy about him. Also the hug he gave me I’m very much aware that it’s part of the Colombian culture, or not??? (Or does he have a crush on me too ) am I making too much of this hug?? Also whenever we spoke while I was driving him back and forth from the hotel to the office, he would listen so attentively, look at me as if it’s the best story I’m telling him. I think that’s what I fell for in him was the amount of respect he showed me while I’m speaking to him. (Or is that also part of the Colombian culture) I hope not as he made me feel so special. I’m hoping that I can see him again. “Can one be this crazy and maybe inlove with someone that you barely know??”
Please share your thoughts and let me know.
From S…with luv to JV
Dear Shanaaz, thank you for reaching out. I’m really moved by your story. It sounds like this man made a great impression on you. Having a crush on someone can be so sweet and yet so sour.
First of all, I’m the last person you should receive dating advice from, so please take whatever I say with a grain of salt.
To answer your question, yes, hugging people is fairly normal in Colombia. Even if you’ve met them recently and you have nothing but a professional relationship with them.
For Colombians (and Latin Americans in general) it’s not inappropriate or uncommon to hug a colleague or, in this case, a person they’ve hired to provide a service, regardless of gender and especially when saying goodbye to them after several days of interaction.
You might have been the first and only reliably friendly face he saw during his trip, therefore he might have wanted to show a bit of extra apreciation when he left. I’ve done it myself multiple times without it necesarily meaning that I’m romantically interested.
I suppose he didn’t realise that he was breaking many rules from your culture because, as I said, an innocent hug between a man and a woman is totally normal for us. Maybe he should have been more aware to keep his distance. You know, when in Rome.
About his politeness, I believe many of us Colombians make an effort to be friendly and behave properly when we are abroad, because we want to make a good impression, as we are well aware of the stereotypes about our country.
Now, I don’t rule out that maybe he likes you back and perhaps was too embarrassed to flirt. I’m kind of sad that both of you didn’t get enough time to build more trust with each other. The story you’ve told us sounds like the beginning of an awesome romantic movie.
But let’s be real. If I were you, I wouldn’t read too much into it. Only if you think it’s really worthy (and safe), I would encourage you to message him and tell him how you feel. Maybe there’s something worth pursuing there, or maybe not. Just be prepared to get either response.
Thank you for responding and i appreciate and educating me on Colombian culture.
I managed to make contact with this guy “J” as i had his mobile number that i received from the company that booked my services. Everything went well the messaging back and forth but i read too much into it. “J” was just being a very good friend to me which i was hoping that he maybe could have told me that he had some attraction or crush on me. I am so heartbroken now as he did make it clear before in his messages that its friendship. i always read between the lines but he is a flirt or maybe I’m just not use to attention from another man especially with such a flirtatious accent lol…I’ve known him for a solid 12 days only and i just get this feeling if he had been a little bit longer in South Africa I am sure i would have made a helluva impact on him so he never forget about me:):):):)
The more we messaged each other the more i fell for him and as i mentioned before the amount of respect he showed me even if there was a bit of flirting coming from his side. i did enjoy it while it lasted as we are no longer in contact until i get a grip on myself and sort out my life as i am a married woman. sometimes i wonder if i had not told him how i felt then maybe we still would have been messaging & flirting:) i think i scared him off also hopefully not for good. Besides what i am feeling towards him i hope that we still can be friends one day. Colombia is still on my bucket list even if “J” and myself aren’t friends any longer. also should i find myself being single by then i will bring home a Colombian man who can say my name all day as it sounds so damn sexy:):):)
Anyway it was good chatting & opening up to you.
Is it common for Colombian men to kiss women on the lips?