Spaniards display emotion, affection in a way Americans don’t

Saturday, Jan. 20, 2018 7:43 PM
Carson Matz and players on the Valencia Firebats.
Celia Matz and group of Spanish third-graders.

Part of getting to know people who live in another country is learning the basic interactions that friends and acquaintances use.

In this column and on my blog, I am trying to focus on the differences between visiting a country and really getting to know what people and culture are like beyond the presentation. One of the things that has been a joy to learn, is how emotional and affectionate most Spaniards tend to be to those they know.

Of course, I had the expected mishaps of accidentally kissing people or knocking heads when they came in to give me a kiss on both cheeks. Now, I have gotten used to it, and it is natural to greet everyone with a left then right kiss (you have to get the order down so you aren’t going for the same side). It is an automatic greeting between women, even those you just meet.

But, it is also a greeting between men and women who are either being introduced or who you have met before. As an American woman, it feels very charming and romantic to be formally kissed as a matter of good manners. However, it did throw me off guard at first when Carson’s 16-year-old friends also greeted me this way. You have to push through your preconceived notions of propriety and look at it like shaking hands in the United States. In Spain, mothers would be very proud to know that their sons had kissed me upon being introduced.

My kids, in third and 10th grades, have learned to expect different physical contact as well. When asking my kids how Spanish kids appear to them at school, they both always answer, “Well, they have a lot of energy.” That’s a generous way to put it. Being a school that tries to bring an international focus to mostly Spanish kids, the American School of Valencia has tried many things to settle people down.

They have brought in consultants, tried a “no speaking outside of class” policy, as well as an “ASV buck” incentive policy. You name it, but nothing seems to work. The reason being that the Spanish culture includes lots of physical contact and it’s just impossible to be a Spanish kid without it.

Spanish kids hang on each other a lot. When walking in the hall, it is expected to hug or kiss people that you are friends with (or wrestle, jump on, mess up their hair). Carson, my 10th-grader, says every time he tries to give a kid a high-five or a handshake, they pull him in for a hug. The third-graders are like puppies, always in clumps hugging and climbing on each other. They play a game called “catch.” It’s different from tag in that the goal isn’t to touch someone, but to physically catch them, hug them and bring them to the ground. I asked Carson if he got hugged or kissed a lot. He said, “Put it this way, I’ve been hugged or kissed more in the past four months than in the rest of my school years combined.”

As a mother of a teenage boy, I jokingly said that there is one tradition I want Carson to bring back with him. He is playing on the only American Football team in Valencia (the Valencia Firebats). All of these boys love American football and try to imitate what they think American football players act like. So, they are very emotional on the field. I have seen wailing, helmet throwing, banging the ground with fists and, of course, lots of hugs and kisses.

But, after a game they won 64 to 48 (they still haven’t gotten defense down), the first thing these 16- to 18-year-old boys did was line up along the fence so their mothers could come down and kiss them. I joyously joined in, telling Carson that this will be our new tradition when he gets back to the U.S. He gamely let me do it, but then responded with, “Enjoy it while you can.”

Sally Shuffield is a Durango resident living in Spain for a year with her family. Follow her blog at