Wednesday, 22 January 2014

The Life Bilingual: Kissing with confidence

When you uproot your life and transplant it somewhere other than where you've grown up, you know you’re going to probably have to learn a new lingo. So, you diligently sign up for classes, or buy the books, in preparation for your total immersion in a sea of words you don’t know.
But how many of us transplants gave a moment’s thought to learning the body language of the place we're moving to?
Experts disagree on the extent to which body language – or non-verbal communication if you want to get scientific – contributes to what we ‘say’. Estimates rate from about 65% to as high as a staggering 93%. No matter which you choose to believe, the fact that the actual words we use only contribute 35% (tops) makes you want to stop paying those tuition fees and chuck away the phrase books.

It didn’t take me long to understand the role of body language when I first arrived in Greece nearly 25 years ago. A loud, passionate bunch taken as a whole, Greeks can seem pretty intimidating when you first arrive. You get off the plane at Athens airport or the ship at Piraeus port and all around you are people waving arms, rolling eyes, and shouting at a rate of knots. Moustaches (male and female) quiver, faces turn a delicate shade of magenta. Any minute, you expect to see daggers drawn and blood spilt. And then, they roar with laughter and embrace like brothers.

Once I realised I hadn’t inadvertently walked in on the start of new civil war, I saw that I was probably going to fit in OK. By the relatively reserved standards of England, I have rather ‘loud’ body language. When I get my teeth into a subject, my hands flutter by face, fingers jab, arms flap, eyes bulge and teeth are occasionally bared. My dear old dad used to say that if anyone wanted to shut me up, all they’d need to do would be to tie me to a chair.

So, for me, mastering the basics of Greek body language was actually much easier than getting to grips with the convoluted grammar, use of three genders and spiky alphabet of its words.  I even quickly came to understand the seemingly counter-intuitive upwards head nod (sometimes accompanied by a 'tut' of the tongue) that actually means “No”, “No way!” or “Over my dead body” depending on its depth and vehemence.

But, what I STILL struggle with – especially when stepping away from Greek soil – is the whole kissing thing.

Most of us Brits are brought up to be a little stingy with our kisses. Apart from the erotic variety, we usually just deliver little pecks of affection on dry closed lips or the cheek of our family and closest friends. Really good chums might get a hug. And British blokes are horribly ill at ease with the very idea of kissing or being kissed by another man, no matter how well they may know each other.  

In Greece, it’s a completely different kettle of kisses. Lips are pressed to faces in a double-sided greeting for almost everyone you come across. Mwah-mwah, it goes for friends, acquaintances, families, distant never-met relatives-in-law, work colleagues....  you name it. Believe me, I was in serious need of a chap stick after the seemingly endless line of well-wishers at my marriage to Ovver Arf all those years ago!

OK, so you probably shouldn’t pucker up when you see your boss or bank manager (though you may have to metaphorically kiss some other cheeks), but you get the picture. Greeks kiss. A lot.

These days, so do I.

That’s fine, I suppose. Shows that I’ve assimilated into Greek society and that I’m not a stereotypical, stand-offish ‘kryokoli Anglida’. The double-cheek twin peck is now second nature to me.

The problem comes when I head abroad – either back to the UK for a family visit, or (worse) when on a business trip, which usually means Dubai or Singapore where such an intimate and invasive display is certainly NOT the norm.

My family seem to have come to terms with the change of my kissing etiquette, though I think some still find it odd that I now give them a peck on the cheek rather than a dry sexless kiss on closed lips (strangely, most Greeks limit mouth-to-mouth contact to lovers, small children and pets).

Yes, I’ve seen the fleeting look of surprise, bemusement, shock, even horror, flashing across the faces of people I know only vaguely as I home in on them and plant a smackeroo. Sadly, it usually only registers once I’ve done the deed – by which time it is too late, and too embarrassing, to take it back or explain myself.

So if you are reading this and nodding your head in recognition as you recall that time I traumatised you with an overly-effusive greeting, please forgive me.

I maybe bilingual these days, but can I help it that my body isn’t?

No comments:

Post a Comment