A Bulgarian teenager shares her story of a culture clash.
I was waiting in front of my school in Stara Zagora on a cold winter evening in January with 29 Bulgarian students, all anxious to meet their partners from Italy, Spain and Sweden for the first time. This was my first exchange and the prospect of hosting a girl from another country filled me with mixed feelings – I was both excited and nervous, like my other Bulgarian friends. Would my partner like my home, would she like the food, would we get on at all? Would we….
When the bus from Sofia finally arrived, we all rushed to welcome our guests . They got out of the bus, beaming with joy. Soon Paola and I recognised each other but before I knew it, she did something I hadn’t expected – she kissed me on the cheek…TWICE! As I found out later, all the Italians had done the same with their Bulgarian partners. It was a bit strange and I felt somehow awkward.
Why did the Bulgarian girl feel awkward?
- She didn’t like being kissed by girls.
- She thought the host should offer the first kiss.
- Two kisses was too much – one would be enough.
- Kissing someone when meeting them for the first time is uncommon. A handshake will do.
- This might have been the case but unlikely. In fact, girls in Bulgaria kiss a lot as a form of greeting, especially if they are close friends.
- Not really. There is nothing like an etiquette that requires this order of social kissing, especially among young people.
- Maybe. However there is a better explanation.
- This is the most likely explanation. While it is hard to generalise, it is common in Bulgaria, at least in a town the size of Stara Zagora, to only shake hands or hug when you meet someone for the first time. Social kissing is more common once you get to know each other a bit.
The Culture of Greetings
The practice of greeting someone for the first time can be pretty confusing. Interestingly, cultures vary a lot in the way people interact with each other the first time they meet.
- In Bulgaria people tend to be more distanced during this first encounter. A handshake is the most common form of greeting someone for the first time.
Why is that is difficult to say. Shaking hands goes back to ancient times – an open hand is “safe” so this is seen as a gesture of peace by demonstrating that the hand holds no weapon. Or perhaps it has to do with the traditional, more conservative nature of Bulgarian culture when it comes to public display of emotion – in that respect the Mediterranean cultures are more demonstrative where “cheek kisses” are usually accompanied by lots of gestures and verbal communication.
- In Italy for example people often kiss twice – first on the right and then on the left cheek;
- The Catalans do it similarly but the two kisses in their culture follow the opposite pattern – first left , then right.
- Social kissing in Bulgarian culture could easily be confused with intimate kissing so it is better to avoid it when you meet someone for the first time.
- Our Swedish partners seemed to keep a distance similar to the Bulgarians.
- What is more, shaking hands is considered by some to be unhygienic, especially if hands are sweaty.
However, with Bulgaria opening to the world, the practice of shaking hands is changing and with the increased mobility and access to other ways of being and living, many people, especially young people are adopting a more flexible approach to greeting people, adjusting to other ways according to the specific situations
- In fact, a lot of the Bulgarian students taking part in the exchange report that once they have been exposed to the “cheek culture”of their Catalan and Italian partners, they felt less awkward when they did as the Catalans and the Italians did during the respective return visits.
Is there an Etiquette for “doing it right” when you greet foreigners?
Perhaps the best answer to this question would be “no”. Although cross-cultural greetings can be culture-bound, i.e. shaped by the expectations of specific cultures, it is always good to approach each individual as a unique personality and observe their behaviour –
- if you are a host, just be positive, smile and respond to what is emerging.
- If you find yourself in an embarrassing situation, do not panic or cringe – accept that these are some of the “joys” of cross-cultural interactions – a lot of times when we cross borders, we have to live with ambiguity, never quite sure what is going on, if it is going wrong, whether we have put our foot in it or “the others” are downright weird. however, once you laugh it off, you will come out of those awkward moments enriched and more confident. It is always good to remember that when you are in doubt abroad, you shouldn’t “suffer in silence” – instead
- ask for clarification,
- negotiate and
- brave the journey.
Our experience shows that books or instruction manuals do not help much and experience is the best teacher. Actually, one Bulgarian girl confused her Catalan partner by greeting her the Catalan way when in Bulgaria – the desire to “do it right” could be endlessly fascinating but there is nothing like “the right way”. My way may not be your way but there is a way to find our way if we give ourselves a bit of time and be flexible.
We have found an interesting article for you to explore this topic further. You can find it here.
Cultural Value: Distance
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