Croats think of themselves as touchy-feely kind of people, but I never hug and kiss so many strangers as when I am spending time in London.
Is there something weird going on with the tactile Croats or the reserved Brits?
Not really. For the most part, we can still trust these stereotypes. We only need to examine how body language differs in these two cultures. Namely, why Croats rarely kiss their closest friends. And why, on the other hand, the Brits peck a stranger’s cheek even before you get a word in edgewise.
What does touching mean in Croatia?
Croats are indeed tactile people. They cuddle their children long after they stop being ones. And when they are still little, kids spend a lot of time nestled in their parents’ lap. Couples in Croatia are not afraid to show their emotions in public. You can see them holding hands in the street or kissing in parks and cafés.
To Croats, touching is an expression of love and devotion. It is directed only to the particular people – the ones chosen by their heart. And like with all things romantic, there is no logic to it. But once you get into that inner circle, there is no shortage of tactile chumminess.
Greeting people with pecks on the cheeks in Britain is more of an etiquette. No matter how they feel about you, or even before they find out how they feel about you, the pecks are flying off. When I freshly landed in London, this custom made me think I was special to a heck of lot of Brits. Whereas in reality, I was simply greeted in a polite way. As anyone else is.
The amount of touching in Croatia and Britain may not be so different after all. But what goes underneath is the difference that makes the difference.
So how do you know when and who to touch in Croatia?
From handshake to hug and everything in-between
The distribution of touching in Croatia may be a bit surprising. Because we mostly lavish our tactile fondness to those who are somewhere in between total strangers and closest friends.
To get the whole picture, let’s examine the most typical gestures of greeting and parting.
- Complete strangers
When you first meet someone in Croatia, you don’t know if they are a potential colleague, business partner, or an eventual friend. Maybe you will never see them again. So in this case, both greeting and parting is conducted only with a polite handshake. Which means as little touching as possible.
If you never develop a closer relationship with such people, but continue crossing paths with them, you will still greet them with a handshake only.
- Casual acquaintances
Over time a few total strangers could become dearer to you than the others. At some point you will express that transformation by combining kissing on the cheeks with a formal handshake. And this tactile gesture is the biggest pitfall for non-Croats.
Shaking hands and kissing at the same time is a pretty advanced choreography. If you’ve never tried it before, you are sure to fall out of step and feel bemused. Your eyes will first notice a cue to approach the person with your cheek. But as you do, and correctly so, there will be a stretched-out hand lodged between you, waiting to be shook.
‘What on Earth…’ you’ll think.
And it will be too late. You’re already out of rhythm, slightly embarrassed, and trying to collect yourself with an apologetic smile.
You need to master this traditional Croatian greeting because it’s the most common way of saying hello and good-bye. If you calculate the number of acquaintances you have in your life, you will realize why kiss and handshake is so important. Statistically, it’s the most frequent body language sequence you will be doing in Croatia.
If you get promoted from an acquaintance to a friend by a Croat, things change again. The handshake is lost and kisses on the cheeks become more whole-hearted. There is no more need for formalities when the floodgates of fondness open up.
With this body sequence, you can expect your friend to put their hands on your shoulders. It simply means they care a lot. As they do, there will again be a cue to approach them with your cheek. You are still on fragile ground here, because fumbles are waiting to happen.
Watch closely which cheek a Croat is offering. It is Croatian tradition to first kiss on the left cheek. I can’t tell you how many times even I got it wrong and ended up kissing a friend on the lips. It would usually happen after I had spent a long time in the UK.
The funny thing is that if you fall out of step with this one, your blunder will be met with a heartfelt giggle. After all, you are in the inner circle now.
- Best friends and family
Croats have few chosen ones who are in the very bull’s eye of their inner circle. These are their best friends and members of the nuclear family. Mind you, the nuclear family in Croatia always involves siblings (plus their families) no matter how old they are.
We greet the chosen few with a long, literally heart-to-heart hug. Even kissing on the cheeks is left out. You place your right arm on top of the person’s left shoulder and your left arm underneath their right arm. Then you hold a while and enjoy the utmost expression of love.
This body sequence is pure and has nothing to do with etiquette. We hug you because we love you. But as with all things love, nothing can be forced or formulated. Which means that we may not even hug our closest ones every time we see them.
You could witness members of the family getting together without any special greeting. If they spend a lot of time together, there is just no need to hug ever single time. They may save it for special occasions, such as birthdays or coming back from travels. Or they could hug twice, three times in one sitting.
That’s what the ways of the heart are like: strange, spontaneous and sweet. And in Croatia, they really are touchy-feely.
Now you’ve mastered your first and most important lesson in Croatian body language. You know which gestures to use and with whom. What’s even better, you will always know how people in Croatia feel about you by the way they greet you.
About Andrea Pisac
Andrea Pisac is a writer and cross-cultural expert. She writes about everyday ordinary life in Croatia from an extraordinary perspective on her award-winning blog Zagreb Honestly. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.