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Culture and the New Normal: Besitos and Beyond

Meriwynn Mansori has worked for Participate Learning for the past nine years and currently serves as a program manager. She has always had an interest in cultural practices around the world and wrote a dissertation about language and culture in Barcelona. Read on for Meriwynn’s perspective about the importance of the besito, a classic Spanish greeting, and the future of cultural norms during COVID-19.

One of the first things I learned as an exchange student in the romantic city of Sevilla was the art of the besito. A light kiss—either a real one or an air kiss—planted first on the right cheek, then on the left, is a rite of passage for anyone new to life in Spain. Regardless of whether the encounter is with a close friend, an acquaintance, or a person you’re meeting socially for the first time, you’re likely to be greeted with besitos. And when two men greet each other, they’ll often accompany their warm handshake with a left hand placed on the other’s right forearm, or even a “bro hug” if they’re close friends.

Spaniards aren’t the only ones who express friendship and congeniality through more than a smile or handshake. Across the Spanish-speaking world, hugs and kisses are the norm. Often, when visiting a dual-language classroom, I’ll get hugs not only from the students who are eager to greet a familiar face but from their Spanish-speaking teacher as well. Participate Learning CEO David Young jokes that when he was on sabbatical in Costa Rica, if he was the last to arrive at his kids’ soccer practice, he would get 24 kisses and handshakes from the moms and dads already assembled there.

Regardless of where you go in the Spanish-speaking world, you’ll undoubtedly encounter this kind of warmth and connection. But will COVID-19 change all that for good? Since the pandemic exploded this spring, It’s been hard to go through a day without hearing a reference to “the new normal.” Face masks and social distancing are a part of daily life now. A quick Google search of “COVID-19 handshake” yields dozens of results, most of which predict its downfall. The Spanish-language media outlet Telemundo bids farewell to hugs and kisses and shows how people from China to New Zealand are reinventing traditional greetings. In the U.S., it’s customary for people to smile at one another in passing and in social interactions, but mask wearing has made that difficult.

What does that mean for cultural practices that people around the world use to connect with one another and celebrate the things that matter to them?

At Participate Learning, our motto is “uniting our world through global learning.” We think a lot about culture and how it reflects our values and history. Since 1987 we have been welcoming international educators to the U.S. to serve as exchange teachers and cultural ambassadors in schools across North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. Our ambassador teachers offer their students and school communities important insights about different ways to see and experience the world.

I chatted with a few of our cultural exchange teachers to get their perspective about the impact of the coronavirus on their home culture. Argentinian teacher Fiama Liaudat mentioned how the pandemic has affected the ritual of drinking maté, a tea-like beverage that is shared among a group of people who drink it through a communal metal straw. Likewise, Fiama explained, family dinners on Sunday, where three generations of her family gather without fail to enjoy a meal, have been replaced by Zoom calls.

Spanish teachers Aida Fernández and Lucía Meca shared some of the changes they observed in their home country, which was hit hard by the pandemic. Even as Spain gradually reopens and loosens the tight restrictions that have been in place for three months, things aren’t quite the same. Lucía explained that in her hometown of Madrid, social life kicks into high gear in summer, and it’s a time for people to meet for a beer or a meal. Terrazas, outdoor bars that are a mainstay of summer in Spain, can only hold 50 percent of their normal capacity due to social distancing restrictions, so many people can’t even get a seat at a table. As a result, people are opting to have gatherings in their homes, which is unusual in Spain, where social life almost always happens in public spaces.

Times of difficulty and upheaval don’t only challenge cultural norms but can also bring opportunities to build new cultural practices. Aida says that she’s in daily contact with her family, which was never the case prior to the pandemic. Fiama talks about how Argentinians’ sense of solidarity has united them in their fight against the coronavirus, and how people make sacrifices like wearing masks in public and only going out on appointed days in service of the greater good.

I asked Aida and Lucía if they thought the restrictions brought by the pandemic would change customs for good. Will we bid farewell to the besito, I wondered? They answered with a resounding “no.” Aida explained, “Cuando algo te sale de dentro, te sale.” To paraphrase her words, when something is deep inside a person, it has to be expressed.

That’s good news. I’m looking forward to the day when I’m able to visit my friends in Sevilla again, where we’ll sidle up to a bar elbow to elbow with other hungry, thirsty people. We’ll share a plate of tapas, and we’ll greet each other as we always have, turning our heads first to the left, then to the right, planting a besito on each other’s cheek.

Experiencing cultural exchange firsthand changes lives for students, educators, and the communities that host them. Learn more about the teach abroad experience through the eyes of a former ambassador teacher, or see what current ambassadors are doing through the #ambassadorsummercamp hashtag on Twitter.