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How to kiss in Spain - and how not to

Updated: Apr 10

Rodin's famous statue, depicting two lovers kissing. Presumably consensually...

There are not many countries in the world, outside of Europe, where it is normal to kiss in greeting. Most foreigners who have spent time in Spain will probably have stories about situations in which they felt awkward:

Is it expected that I kiss…

…my new girlfriend’s mother when I first meet her?

…my boss every morning when I arrive at work?

…the dentist when I go for a check-up?

And if so, how many times? Which cheek do I start on? What happens if we accidentally brush lips?

The good news is that if any greeting-kissing is going to happen, it will almost always be just one on each cheek, starting on the left, i.e. right cheek to right cheek. Compare and contrast this with France, where you need a telephone directory-sized manual to get to grips with the minutiae of the kissing etiquette in the different regions.

The Spanish, we all know, are much more touchy-feely and physically affectionate than most other nationalities, certainly than the British. In the course of everyday interactions, it is common for people to touch each other on the arm – a gesture which can be misconstrued by non-natives as flirtatious, but which has absolutely no connotation beyond keeping the conversation going.

But there are boundaries. Some of the unwritten rules may appear counter-intuitive, such as the fact that a single kiss on one cheek is considered more intimate than the ‘formal’ dos besos (two kisses). A kiss on the lips is a complete no-no, except with your absolute nearest and dearest, but even then, over-enthusiastic public displays of affection are frowned upon in Spain. In France, as Joni Mitchell noted, they kiss on the main street, but not in Spain!

One way of keeping things in check – at least for this slightly self-conscious English boy – is the fear of the humiliation of someone ‘doing the cobra’ on you. Hacer la cobra means pulling back when someone leans in to give a kiss. It is very rare that this happens; kissing is so ingrained in Spanish culture that it would be the equivalent of refusing a handshake – a real statement of disdain.

More seriously…

Whether or not you are a football fan, you cannot have failed to notice the stushie that kicked off after Luis Rubiales, the President of the Spanish football association, kissed Jenni Hermoso, one of Spain’s recent World Cup winners on the lips. “It was in the heat of a euphoric moment, it was just a peck, it was consensual” were his bleating justifications for what is now being investigated as a case of sexual violence.

I honestly cannot remember what my initial reaction was. Was I as shocked as I now feel I should have been, or did I write it off as normal Spanish behaviour? I would have been a thousand times more shocked if Prince William had kissed Mary Earps in a similar way, so am I guilty of moral relativism, or is it natural to make certain cultural allowances?

The answer to these soul-searching questions has been clearly stated by at least one (male) Spanish football team. The Sevilla FC shirts this week displayed the hashtag, which is now trending in Spain: Se_acabó, which means "it’s over." This “it” is a reference to the lazy machismo which has been a stereotype of Spanish culture since the death of Franco led to greater social freedom. The online Britannica dictionary's definition of machismo is “the exaggerated pride in masculinity, perceived as power, often coupled with a minimal sense of responsibility and disregard of consequences”.

In this post-covid era a lot of us are still cagier about any physical contact, which should help the cause of those who regard kissing anyone, anywhere, as a distasteful intrusion. For those of us who are OK with a friendly peck on the cheek – in the appropriate context – the recent high-profile case is a reminder that permission should first be established…

Andrew Wenger

Director, SameSky Languages

Please contact me here if you would like to find out more about joining a Spanish* language course. A new block of lessons is going to start in mid-September.

*We also offer French, German, Italian and Japanese.

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