Public displays of affection, also known as PDA, can be tricky territory for travelers to navigate when in an unfamiliar culture. What is acceptable in one country is frowned upon in another and downright illegal in yet another.
The confusion isn’t limited to couples or kissing and touching. From hugs and handshakes to smiles and hand gestures knowing what is accepted behavior when greeting and showing affection is an essential element of mindful travel. For example, while hugging comes fairly naturally to Americans, especially Southerners like me, reaching for an embrace in Italy, Thailand, and many other countries, even with someone you consider close, can produce awkward results.
Intercultural communication expert Ryan Foley remembers visiting his family in Australia after living in the U.S. for almost a year. When Foley saw his uncle, he instinictly went for a bear hug. “(My uncle) turned red, stiffened up, and nervously mumbled, “Okay, then,’” says Foley. “He had been expecting a handshake and my aunt a single kiss on the cheek. We all learned something and had a good laugh later about it later.”
Foley and the other experts agree that understanding intention and expectations is key to engagement in public. Becoming familiar with a destination’s unique rules, behavior patterns, and norms rewards a traveler exponentially with a deeper understanding of social context and culture.
Yet with so many avenues for taking a wrong turn where PDAs are concerned, how can travelers get it right? These tips should send you in a good direction.
Ask Questions, Seek Context
Any guidebook worth its weight will include a section on behavior norms when interacting with locals and travel companions as well as provide specific information for LGBT travelers. In addition, use forums such as Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree to better understand behavioral nuisances from fellow travelers and local experts.
The U.S State Department also provides important country specific information. For example, when it comes to public behavior in United Arab Emirates, the guide cautions travelers saying: “U.S. citizens have been arrested in the past for obscene hand gestures, using inappropriate (foul) language with a police official, and for public displays of affection, such as kissing.”
To combat unintended taboo behavior, Sheryl Hill, the executive director of Depart Smart, advises travelers to have command of a few key phrases in the local language to ask for permission or apologize can get you out of a jam or awkward situation. And Foley recommends using an anthropologist’s approach by asking questions about why certain behaviors exist. “Being genuinely curious and asking those who you meet about their greeting customs will provide you with rich understanding while allowing your hosts to talk about something they know very well,” he says. “Seek out their feedback as they watch you interact with others.”
Follow Local Lead
Max Robinson of We Swap Euros says the biggest mistake travelers make is trying to initiate greetings. “Wait for the local to decide how you should greet—it could be an air kiss, or a handshake, or even just a smile,” he says. “Don’t dive in unless you know exactly what that person is going to do, otherwise you risk offending them.”
Personally, I have experienced an uncomfortable number of cheek-kisses gone wrong. From not knowing which direction to start (usually left) and whether to double or triple kiss to appropriate level of cheek contact, whether a light brush or air kiss, it’s a delicate art that can trip up even a savvy traveler.
“If your kiss is a misfire, don’t worry,” Foley says. “Laugh at yourself and ask for help in getting it right. Most people love to teach newcomers to a culture how to get greetings right. And remember, you’re seen as a visitor and not a native, so your genuine efforts will typically be appreciated.”
For example, in Kenya, Robinson says social kissing usually consists of a brush of the cheek. “This is actually considered to be more acceptable than a handshake in many instances. However, if you’re a visitor in the country then always wait for the local to initiate this. Also, avoid making any kissing noises (like ‘mwaah’) while doing this (harder than it sounds!)”
Temper Passionate Kisses
Couples of all orientations should be aware of acceptable behavior when it comes to kissing in public, especially open-mouthed kissing. “While even today most Americans would find public French kissing inappropriate, young lovers are much less likely to hold back in the streets of Paris, Rome and Barcelona,” says Foley. “However, give your sweetheart a peck on the lips in Punjab, India, and risk provoking local ire at your ‘indecency,’ as this report in The Atlantic details.
Social rules and norms related to public kissing can be harder to navigate for same sex couples. As gay travel expert Adam Groffman writes for Nomadic Matt, “There are still plenty of places around the world where being gay isn’t safe, nor is it comfortable—for locals or for tourists … It’s frequently just a matter of having to know where and when one can disclose one’s sexuality through words or actions, and also the dangers or consequences (if any) for doing so,” says Groffman.
Best course of action is to observe the behavior of locals and do as they do. In almost every country, rules are likely different in touristy areas versus local parks or traditional neighborhoods.
Grasp the Language of Hands
“A firm handshake earns you respect in the U.S. but comes across as rude in Turkey. A lingering handshake is expected in the United Arab Emirates but will make French people uncomfortable,” says Foley. He suggests learning the local handshake as early as possible.
“Pay attention to nuances such as knowing when to shake hands, who is responsible for initiating contact, any rules based on gender, the length of hold, tightness of grip, as well as what to do with your eyes, and what to say during the shake,” he says.
Hill agrees the simple gesture of shaking hands has high stakes in some areas. “In some cultures men shake men’s hands and women shake women’s hands or kiss, and it is custom to start eldest to youngest first, whereas in Asian cultures we show respect with a greeting and a bow.” In some cultures, shaking hands or touching members of the opposite sex when not related is a religious and cultural taboo, while in others which hand is used for shaking comes down to sanitary issues.
Different countries also have different norms when it comes to the simple act of holding hands. Although the custom is changing today, in many Arab countries it’s typical to see male friends holding hands yet not acceptable for couples of the opposite sex to engage in the same act.
Hill says travelers should also be aware of the cultural nuisances of using hand gestures as greetings. “Okay, thumbs up, can be offensive in some cultures,” she says. Avoid hand signals and gestures unless you are sure you know the meaning.
Be Aware of Personal Space
It’s not uncommon for travelers in Western Europe and other expressive cultures to comment on feeling their personal space was often invaded by “close talkers.” “Crossing uninvited into personal space typically makes people of every culture uncomfortable; but the personal space boundary tends to be much closer in more expressive cultures, and even in certain contexts in less expressive cultures,” says Foley. “Italians and Venezuelans are well-known for their touchy-feely communication style where personal space is smaller, touching is the norm, gestures are bigger, and eye contact is more direct,” says Foley.
He once again recommends taking an anthropologist’s approach. “When we feel uncomfortable, our brain says ‘That person is making me feel uncomfortable,’ rather than, ‘The way I’m interpreting this is making me feel uncomfortable.’ Setting out to match your interpretation of the behavior with the intention of the other person by taking cultural context into account corrects this.”
Main photo courtesy of Antonella B/ Flickr CC BY 2.0
Lead photo courtesy of allenran 917/ Flickr CC BY 2.0
Jess Simpson is a full-time digital nomad, grateful and giddy for bylines in Paste, Mental Floss, Bustle, UAB magazine, Birmingham magazine, and more. Follow her travel secrets and tales at Paste as well as on Facebook and Instagram.