Affection overflows in Mexican culture. When I think of Mexican parties, my nostalgia makes me think of a crowd of people, all a little tipsy, clumsily holding each other and singing loudly together. I think of Mexico, and I’m reminded of the way we hug and kiss and kindly touch each other constantly.
Even when you meet someone for the first time, the social norm is to kiss them on the cheek.
During my first few days of college, greeting others with a stiff handshake instead of a friendly kiss was very weird for me.
I knew that I was supposed to shake a person’s hand while I introduced myself, but my natural instinct was to lean in to kiss everyone on the cheek. When I met my roommate, I completely blanked out and leaned in for a kiss. I guess she thought I was leaning in for a hug, so she confusedly started to lean in. In that fraction of a second, I realized what I was doing and quickly leaned back and stuck out my hand. Needless to say, this made for a very awkward first interaction.
After this embarrassing incident, the customary American handshake continued to feel cold and too formal. Here at UC Berkeley, I felt like I was sealing business deals with everyone I met, because in Mexico, people will shake hands only in formal settings.
Physical affection didn’t seem to be the norm in the United States, and I found myself struggling to know when it was acceptable to hug or touch someone affectionately.
Once I started making friends, I had the instinct to hug them, but apparently, people didn’t do this — at least when you were still getting to know the other person.
On my first date in the United States, I was unsure how I would say goodbye. Here, people normally just waved goodbye between friends. But how was it different when it was a date?
After dinner, my date walked me back to my dorm where we said the usual “I had a fun time.” It was the moment I’d been dreading. I kind of leaned closer to hug him, but he misinterpreted my move as a kiss. So he kissed me. Very. Awkwardly.
The American way of viewing physical contact made me distance myself from the people around me. I didn’t want to be the girl who is always touching everyone and making them feel uncomfortable.
Unsurprisingly, I soon found comfort with a group of other international students from Mexico. The day I met them, we were already hugging each other and being much more affectionate than I had been with anyone for weeks. An American friend who witnessed this interaction even asked me if my friend and I were a couple because of the way we had been hugging.
This type of confusion is common.
My brother, for example, is very affectionate even for Mexican standards. Living in Boston, he has told me of instances where female friends would think that he is in love with them because he is so affectionate and friendly.
But this confusion arises from the oversexualization of physical contact. Touches on the shoulder and hugs aren’t viewed as sexual in our culture. They are an important part of showing friendly affection, care and empathy.
Nonromantic physical affection is greatly undervalued and even stigmatized in the United States. In our current culture, it is weird to see guys hugging each other — although my brother, as an enthusiastic hug-giver, has managed to get rid of this stigma among his male friends. People who do demonstrate affection are assumed to be in a relationship.
But affection is essential to us as social beings. We need human touch to feel connected to the people around us and to demonstrate that we care for one another.
It took me a while to understand when it is socially acceptable to touch, hold or hug people in the United States. Even now, I am still kind of awkward in certain situations where I don’t know the norm (the whole dating thing is especially confusing). But I’ve learned to embrace my affectionate instincts and show my appreciation for the people that matter to me.
Even though it took us a while, my best friends and I are now extremely affectionate towards one another. The ability to physically show our emotions has made me feel a stronger sense of belonging and kinship around them.
And this way of holding and hugging each other unreservedly shouldn’t be tied to a specific culture, because really, it just makes us human.