Connect to share and comment

Don't kiss. Say hello.

Despite warnings, it will take more than a measly flu to keep Spaniards from puckering up.

Doing what Spaniards do best, director Pedro Almodovar poses with actresses Penelope Cruz, left, and Blanca Portillo during a photocall for his movie "Los Abrazos Rotos" (Broken Embraces) in Madrid, March 13, 2009. (Sergio Perez/Reuters)

MADRID — “Don’t kiss. Don’t shake hands. Say hello,” reads a banner hanging from the facade of the Madrid medical association.

The advice seems obvious enough to help prevent infection by the H1N1 flu virus (a.k.a. swine flu). But for tactile Spaniards, following these recommendations borders on a cultural revolution.

The association’s instructions are blatantly ignored by health authorities. In fact, they puckered up and gave each other pecks at meetings held to discuss that very issue. Trinidad Jimenez, Spain’s minister of health, distributed kisses left and right in August at a regional meeting with health department representatives to agree on H1N1 flu prevention measures. Jimenez and Esperanza Aguirre, Madrid’s regional leader, also kissed each other the following day at a meeting to discuss the same topic — and they belong to rival political parties.

Spaniards touch and kiss each other constantly. Babies are smooched by strangers. A kiss on each cheek is the ordinary greeting between two women and between men and women. (Spanish men don’t usually kiss each other, unless they are members of the same family.) It is also a normal way of salutation on a first-time introduction. “This is the first time I’ve been kissed by an interviewee,” revealed an amused foreign correspondent on assignment here. It is not rare for an unfamiliar person to sit next to you in the park, no matter the empty benches all around. People bump into each other in the streets, no apologies; they brush by people’s arms and backs in the metro and bars. Caregivers — mostly immigrants — walk arm-in-arm with old folks. Personal space is much smaller than in northern European and Anglo countries.

Kissing and touching are so instinctual one wonders whether these habits are at the root of Spaniards’ genetic code. For the doctors’ advice to be adopted, “the situation would have to be tremendously serious, almost a catastrophic epidemic like the Black Death,” argued Javier Callejo, a sociologist professor at UNED, the Distance Learning University, and a member of the Colegio Oficial de Sociologos y Politologos de Madrid, Madrid’s official sociologists’ and political scientists’ association.

Callejo explained that personal space is larger in Anglo-Saxon countries because there is a greater sense of individualism. “The Protestant religion probably has something to do with it. And also the fact that the industrialization and modernization process happened earlier. With modernization come individualism and separation of community and social relations. In Latin countries, modernization happened later.”