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Madrid City in English
Sunday 9th of December 2018
Julia Davis 1305 29th of April 2013 by editor 29th of April 2013
To kiss or not to kiss? Photo (CC) flickr: losmininos
A touchy subject

Conversation in Spain can be a contact sport. Julia Davis investigates the touch-friendly culture and speaks to extranjeros about why adapting to it is so difficult

In many English-speaking countries, a kiss on the cheek is reserved for that special someone—perhaps a boyfriend or girlfriend, or in a worst case scenario, Great Aunt Bertha. Patting someone on the back requires a certain level of familiarity too, and rubbing a stranger’s arm might even indicate sexual interest.
    In Spain, however, sometimes a touch is just a touch. The ubiquitous “dos besos” (two kisses) greeting can be shockingly intimate for extranjeros, and socialising in such a demonstrative culture takes some getting used to. “The Spanish are definitely more touchy-feely than Brits,” says Jane Smith, an English teacher currently living in Madrid. She adds that it can be amusing when two expats meet and aren’t sure how to greet one another. “I’ve often found it funny when you’re meeting a new person and one of you goes in for the “dos besos” and the other goes for the handshake,” she smiles. “You end up doing the ‘which-greeting-do-we-go-for’ dance.”

Living in a bubble
So why are Spaniards so darn touchy-feely? As Spanish sociologist Antonio Muñoz Carrión explains, every culture has norms surrounding personal space. “Americans use a bubble,” says Muñoz, who teaches at the Complutense and at Hamilton College in Madrid. “Personal space is sacred.”
    However, in Spain, it isn’t nearly as important. In fact, many Spaniards prefer a light touch to help get a message across. For example, in a face-to-face conversation, an American or northern European may say: “I’m sorry that your mother is in hospital.” To a Spaniard, this verbal statement would have little credibility without a gentle arm-graze. “Saying it is not enough,” comments Muñoz. “If I’m Spanish, I’m going to grab you and say, ‘I’m sorry!’”
    Muñoz believes that religion plays a part in why Mediterranean cultures tend towards physical contact. He thinks Catholicism creates a sense of community that makes personal space less important, and the sense of individual ownership less strong. Also, Spain was traditionally an agrarian culture, fostering an even greater sense of collectivism. “Here, spaces and objects are shared. We’re more interdependent,” he explains. Protestant cultures, on the other hand, tend to stress independence and individual reliance. Moreover, these cultures often discourage effusive displays of emotion, meaning that they’re less touchy-feely overall.

Going public
What’s often most shocking isn’t that Spaniards are super-touchy, it’s that they’re super-public about it, which both English teacher Smith and Marguerite Ferrera, a study abroad student from Los Angeles, have noticed. “The PDA [Public Display of Affection] has been overwhelming!” says Ferrera. “We have them in the US too, but not like here! I feel like everywhere I go, people are making out!”                   Frequently, we’re not talking a discreet peck or two. “Is it just me, or do Spaniards kiss really loudly?” muses Smith. “There’s no need for that many sound effects when you’re expressing affection. You’re not vacuuming someone’s face.”
    The public displays, however, may not be directly related to Spaniards being more tactile in general. According to Muñoz, it’s also an outcome of many Spaniards’ living situations. “Seventy percent of 25-year-olds still live with their parents,” he comments. This means that twenty-somethings have relatively little privacy, and since the home is practically a sacred space in Spain, hosting “special guests” is rarely an option.

Touching times
Madrileños therefore often move their relations to public spaces, where a couple groping each other barely elicits a second glance. “I recently saw two people on the train practically eating each other, and the person next to them was just chilling,” Ferrera laughs, the astonishment still almost visible on her face. 
    Of course, these displays can’t only be blamed on living accommodation or even the economic crisis. In Spain, they’ve been on the rise for the last two or three decades, perhaps due to the backlash following Franco’s death. “During Francoism, [PDA] was completely prohibited,” says Muñoz. “In fact, there was a ‘Public Scandal Law’. If a couple were caught kissing in public, the police could send the girl home and tell her parents.”
    The collapse of the conservative regime might have contributed to Spaniards’ ultra-liberal attitudes about getting it on in public. It could also help to explain why a PDA isn’t just for the young. Anyone who’s been to Madrid has surely noticed the number of publically affectionate middle-aged and older couples. “I think it’s especially adorable when you see an elderly couple walking down the street holding hands,” says Smith. “It would never happen back home!”

We have contact
How can Americans, Brits and other Europeans navigate this touchy subject and get used to the high-contact culture? Muñoz believes firmly that when in Rome, one should do as the Romans do. “If you want to assimilate into the culture of Spain,” he says, “dress like the Spanish, order the same foods, and act the same way in public.”
So grab your significant other, head to the nearest Metro station, squash together on one seat (uncomfortably close to the person next to you), and make out like there’s no tomorrow. Sound effects optional.

What’s the cutest or most outrageous public display of affection that you’ve witnessed in Madrid? Let us know by sending an email to editor [at] in-madrid [dot] com

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