I know, this is example is a little crude, cold, and aggressive, but it f brings up an interesting complex social-conundrum – unwanted public touching. Not of the sexual harassment or illegal kind, but of the generally socially-acceptable kind that infringe on personal-comfort. One of the major problems is that, regardless of how tactful or amiable you are in your rejection of unwanted hugs, cheek-kisses, physical closeness, and general non-threatening touching…are that the rest of society often looks at you like you’re the uncouth, rude, uneducated ass. At times, this may be unavoidable but it’s still a hugely important area of boundary-setting – one of the most awkward, most complex, and “unwinnable” socially ones present.

Here in Costa Rica, for example, kissing on one cheek from woman-to-man, woman-to-woman, and man-to-woman upon greeting and with familiarity is the norm. There are complexities here too. Hygiene, previous familiarity, safety, comfort level all factor in. Gauging is sometimes not at all easy. Hugging is far more common even from man-to-man than in North America. Spatial-closeness far more tolerated and accepted. Yet emotional distance is far greater, strangely enough. Open sharing, directness, showing vulnerability are practiced far more sparingly here. It can sometimes be a complex web to traverse for the uninitiated and outsider. If the proxemics dynamic and physical touching makes you uncomfortable, are there some ways to circumvent it without causing resentment, tension, or offence….or at least mitigating or limiting the “damage”?

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Admittedly, the number one is, if able, to accept the differences in proxemics, physical contact, and custom to fit-in and grow within the new culture. It tooks me some time but I’ve learned to appreciate the physical contact and closeness in a world where generally these elements are decreasing due to a number of societal and technological changes. Sometimes the fact you’re a foreigner (especially one from North America where spatial-distancing is more acceptably-acknowledged as the standard), you get a free-pass as they’re understanding of your spatial-preferences. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and the other person will understand the emotional/cordial distance between the 2 of you and want as little interaction with you as you do them. (they don’t like you or closeness either) Here are some that I’ve utilized over the years to varying degrees of success:

-handshake with elbow-grab gives control over distance and “entry.” (for men)

-utilizing general macho guy greetings before range can be altered (high-fives, fist bumps, half-hugs with inverted-handshake with thumbs intertwined, etc.) (for men)

-angling body to 45-degrees from them (especially if others are in the circle or within conversation-range, your physical-avoidance may not even be picked-up on if conversation is initiated immediately with others in the circle)

-subtly acknowledging another person in the vicinity/room can make a late hug intentionally-awkward or a head-nod/acknowledgement from a distance can at least put-off the potentially-inevitable, or avoid it altogether. A diversionary tactic.

-feigning illness (cold, flu, sinuses, allergies)

-others entering the room at the same time can be a distraction for avoidance if it’s someone specific you don’t like.

-drinks brought prior can be great physical-barriers.

-if the hug is unavoidable, I’ve found that creating space between bodies or the double-tap back-pat usually instinctively forces a quick hug-and-release.

-a friend of mine even brought up being direct and stating that you’re not a hugger, though in some countries that can be offensive regardless of how gently it’s put.

I think the smile and graciousness are imperative on all of this working. Remember, none of these are excuses to be rude, ignorant of culture, or intentionally-offensive. However, sometimes we have our cultural-norm and comfort-levels. Sometimes people are touch-phobic or with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Some are germaphobes. Some have prior emotional trauma. Distrust in strange or unknown people. Bad or intuitive vibes. There are a lot of reasons why someone legitimately prefers emotional distance and, though these should be respected, we know how people can get offended at the drop of a hat these days at times, so it pays to have some alternative options available. I often think the “social-closeness” element is one of the most difficult rivers to traverse in boundary-setting as the subtleties are so nuanced and environment-specific that we neglect to address them as even being something worthy of discussion in modern conflict management. Taboos, even unacknowledged ones, are healthy-discussion points.

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