Americans great each other with a hand shake. While hands are touching there is usually about two are three feet of space between participating parties, and once the hands separate some form of small talk or, if you’re unlucky, awkward silence ensues while a conversation is forcibly maintained by the most outgoing person in the group. Conversations between people who meet each other for the first time remain fixed upon the basic details of one’s life, the weather, food, or business if the environment calls for it. Brazilians, being much more expressive, have a different way of getting to know new people, which at first can leave Americans shocked and uncomfortable.
Brazilians greet each other with on kiss on the cheek in São Paulo and the rest of the south, and one on each cheek from Rio de Janeiro to the north. Conversation topics can deal with any topic, ranging from the weather and soccer to a recent death in the family, divorce, financial problems, obscure personal interests, and much more. The more one meets a Brazilian, the more likely it becomes for awkward touching to occur. Brazilians show their like or for someone through touching, be it a touch on the shoulder or a hand rub. Touching is more common in the north of Brazil than in the South. Paulistanos have a reputation for being cold and unfriendly because they usually don’t touch others as much as your typical Carioca (from Rio de Janeiro) or Bahian. However, for an American they still come off as extremely friendly and even at times still slightly invasive of personal space.
As an American who spent his first month in Salvador where awkward touching is custom, I felt extremely uncomfortable with people I didn’t know rubbing my hands and telling me about their divorce. After moving to São Paulo where touching is less frequent, I became more accustomed, and entered a phase that I believe many Americans in Brazil probably go through. At first, everyone is invading your personal space. People you barely know are rubbing your back, sitting uncomfortably close to you on the bus, and sending you Facebook messages asking you extremely personal questions. Shortly after, they invite you to their birthday party to meet their families, feed you to your heart’s content, offer to show you around the city and take you to the city’s best areas, smiling and laughing the entire time. Touching becomes routine, showing others that you are there if they need anything. What at first is invasive becomes warm and inviting. And then, Americans go back to the United States, where people remain poised and maintain a distance from one another. They miss the friendliness and warmth that they experienced in Brazil, while simultaneously appreciating always having three feet of space to move around and being able to close their bedroom door without being considered rude and unfriendly.
Amongst the group of exchange students in my program, feelings about touching vary widely. Some are still extremely uncomfortable with, some just accept it as a part of life here, while others are going to miss human contact as an sign of affection. For me, the awkward has become not so awkward, and while I sometimes crave physical separation and space to breath, I’m really going to miss the unspoken manner of people showing they really care.