Trans-Iberian

Trans-Iberian

Covering everything from the major news of the week and burning social issues, to expat living and la vida local, EL PAÍS’ team of English-language bloggers offers its opinions, observations and analysis on Spain and beyond.

Should you kiss a nun? and other conundrums of the Spanish greeting

Por: | 12 de junio de 2015

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Should you ever kiss a nun?

This is not a question I ever expected to be asking myself. And yet, as I edge towards my fifth year in Barcelona, it is a question that has moved to the forefront of my mind, bringing together two of the key themes of my stay in the Catalan capital.

The first is kissing. In Spain, as you probably know, it is traditional to greet women with a kiss on each check. That sounds simple enough - certainly compared the the bewildering variety of cheek kissing combinations that different French regions offer - but has nevertheless raised a number of questions in my head.

The idea that I had formed over many years of visiting Spain is that you kiss all women on greeting. This seemed admirably simple when compared to the uncertainty around British greetings, where you never quite know if a handshake, air kiss, cheek kiss or even hug may be in order.

But the reality of the greeting kiss in Spain, as I have painfully discovered through years of misadventure, is a far more shaded experience, with ifs and buts and escape clauses littered liberally throughout.

Should I, for example, kiss my daughter’s playgroup teacher who I see every morning and night, I wondered? Yes, you might think: I know her well enough and we get along. But no, according to my Spanish girlfriend, who explained that there is an “if-you-see-them-every-day” sub clause to the kissing contract which dictates that it is a bit too much to kiss someone you see on a daily basis.

I thought I had grasped this. But it turns out there is actually an exception to this exception and you SHOULD, then, kiss someone you see everyday if you’re then not going to see them for a while (if, say, your child’s playgroup is about to go on Easter holidays).

OK: but what about for people in authority, for want of a better word? Should I, for example, kiss Ada Colau, the mayor-elect of Barcelona if introduced to her.

No. And - possibly you saw this coming - yes. 

It all depends on the context, apparently. If I were introduced to Ada Colau by a mutual friend in a casual context then a kiss would be the right option. But if we were to be introduced in a more formal setting then a handshake would be better. And if, I asked my girlfriend, I were to be introduced to Ada Colau by a mutual friend in a formal context, would I kiss her? 

No, she said, after a moment’s thought.

“How do you know this stuff?” I asked.

“I just do,” she replied. “It’s like British people knowing when to buy other people a drink.”

But how about a nun? Should you, I asked my girlfriend as we made our way to a social do at the local nunnery, kiss a nun when first introduced?

Maybe I should explain. In Britain I don’t think I met a nun in my whole 33 years there. Nor do you tend to see them around: nuns are less widespread in Protestant countries - a legacy of the first Protestant reformers - and only 45 women became nuns in England and Wales in 2014, up from just 15 in 2009. 

By contrast, in Spain some 400 young people became monks or nuns in 2013, some 76% of these women, joining one of more than 6,000 religious communities country wide.

It is little surprise, then, that nuns are far more prevalent on the streets of Barcelona than in London and I quickly became accustomed to seeing them pass by, friendly smiles on their faces, as they went around their daily business.

Even then, I was still slightly surprised when my girlfriend suggested we had check out a local nursery that was run by nuns as we looked for a place for our young son to spend his days. I didn’t have anything against nuns, of course. But I had little notion of what they do in their day-to-day business and the idea that they looked after children was unexpected.

In the end, we decided to go for the nun nursery and it proved an excellent decision. The nuns there - who work alongside “standard” (in the sense that they aren’t nuns) nursery teachers - are always brilliantly friendly, a serene look of calm on their faces that is hugely welcome to any parent that has spent half of the night wiping child’s vomit off their pyjamas. I’ve come to look forward greatly to my brief chats with them when I go to pick up my son.

But how on earth do you greet them? Is a kiss too overly friendly? A handshake too cold? These people spend seven hours a day with my baby son, after all, so I didn't want to mess this up.

In the end I went for a handshake. There’s no guidebook on etiquette in Spain to govern how you should greet a nun. But if my ever-informed girlfriend is in the right, then men should shake nuns’ hands in greeting while women who know them well can give them a kiss on each cheek. And in the end, that felt about right.

So there is one conundrum of Spanish life conquered. Give me another five years and I’ll get onto the rest.

(NB should I be wrong on my kissing etiquette, then please do let me know in the comments.)

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Authors (Bloggers)

Chris Finnigan is a freelance journalist based in Barcelona. He writes for Barcelona Metropolitan and is a book reviewer and reader for The Barcelona Review. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics. You can find him on twitter @chrisjfinnigan

Ben Cardew is a freelance journalist, translator and teacher, now resident in Barcelona after growing up gracefully in Scotland via Norwich. He writes for The Guardian, the NME and The Quietus, among others, on everything from music to digital media. You can find him on Twitter @bencardew

Fiona Flores Watson is a freelance journalist, guide and translator who has lived in Seville since 2003, and has been a writer and editor for more than 20 years. She writes for the Guardian, Telegraph and Sunday Times Travel Magazine. Originally from Essex, Fiona is also Consulting Editor of Andalucia.com and has her own blog, Scribbler in Seville. She has been contributing to Trans-Iberian since 2014 and tweets at @Seville_Writer

Jeff Brodsky is a freelance writer. He arrived in Barcelona in 2013 via an admittedly indirect route, living in Chicago, Arizona, Seville, Amsterdam, North Carolina and Madrid. Despite not having stepped foot in Seville for over five years, he still speaks Spanish with an Andalusian accent. Jeff’s writing has been published in newspapers and magazines in America and Europe.

Koren Helbig is an Australian freelance journalist and blogger enjoying a life of near-eternal sunshine in Alicante. She writes for publications in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom, focusing on stories exploring smart and positive approaches to social issues. She hangs out on Twitter at @KorenHelbig and keeps a selection of her favourite stories at korenhelbig.com.

Julie Pybus lives in a small off-grid house on a hillside in Catalunya. She usually focuses on helping charities and social enterprises with their publications and websites, but has also written for The Guardian, Country Living and The Observer. Julie launched and runs a hyperlocal website which endeavors to increase understanding between the different nationalities in her area perelloplus.com. @JuliePybus

Paul Louis Archer is a freelance photographer, multimedia storyteller and artist educator. A cross-disciplinary worker, who endeavors to encompass the mediums of photography, audio design and writing. Born in Hertfordshire of an English father and Spanish mother. Based in the United Kingdom. @PaulLouisArcher

Vicki McLeod is a freelance writer and photographer. She has lived in Mallorca since 2004. Vicki writes about her beloved island for The Majorca Daily Bulletin, the only daily English language paper in Spain; produces regular columns for the Euro Weekly News, and articles for Spain-Holiday.com. Vicki runs PR strategies for several businesses in Mallorca and London as well as working on her own blogs and projects. She and her husband, Oliver Neilson, supply photo and text content for private clients via @phoenixmediamlr. She tweets at @mcleod_vicki.

Born in Newcastle upon Tyne and based in Barcelona, Alx Phillips writes about contemporary art, dance and theatre in a way that human beings can understand. For more previews, reviews, interviews and extras, check: www.lookingfordrama.com.

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