Every morning when I arrive to work in Santiago de Chile, we greet each other with a friendly kiss on the cheek. Men and women alike, whether I’ve met them before or will never see them again, blow right past any cognizance of my Americanized personal space bubble and plant a big one right on my cheek. Occasionally, there’s a “¿Cómo estás?” exchanged involved, sometimes there’s a hug or back rub too, but regardless, there’s always the kiss. The kiss happens when I leave work, too, at which point the norm is to say goodbye to everyone in the office in the same manner as I greeted him or her in the morning.
Now, I can’t help but giggle to myself when I compare this to my past work environment in Seattle. Despite working in an incredibly welcoming, interesting and socially aware environment, it was more common to receive a head nod, a grunt, or maybe a “good morning” depending on the time of day or the amount of coffee already consumed. A formal handshake was the norm for any meeting. But a KISS? No way. My male colleagues and I never even hugged each other.
The irony grows as I reminisce about how I was expected to greet colleagues in Thailand just a couple months ago – a silent head nod and respectful bow with hands together right below the chin was accompanied by “Sawatdee,” the traditional Thai greeting. There was never any physical touch, better yet a kiss!
I find these subtle but significant cultural differneces fascinating and important – especially the implications they have for international business operations and for NGOs implementing programs abroad.