Photo: Jeffrey Wegrzyn

When I moved to Argentina from Michigan nine years ago, one of the biggest cultures shocks I had was with interactions with Argentine men. I went from an ultra-conservative suburban town filled with uptight people slathering on hand sanitizer after shaking hands to a land where full-on hugs and warm kisses on the cheek are the norm upon meeting someone. I went from a place where I would pay my own share of a date to a place where doors would be held open and chairs would be pulled out for me – and as a fiercely independent, boundary-setting woman who also has an apparent weakness for suave Latin men, I wasn’t quite sure how to navigate these new waters.

It took me a while to figure out what social interaction was part of a cultural norm and what was inappropriate or over-the-top for me.  To figure out which customs I would choose to accept or wholeheartedly adopt, and which I would question or outright reject.

On touch

If you come to Argentina, expect to be touched. A lot. It’s common to be greeted by a hug and/or a kiss on the cheek, both upon saying hello and saying goodbye (even if those two moments happen within 20 seconds of each other).

I had to realize that a lot of men here also greet their grandmother and their soccer teammates in this same way. A kiss on the cheek and a warm hug does not necessarily equate to flirtation or desire.  Except when it does.

I can easily tell when the hug/kiss combo goes beyond what a man would do with his buddies from school or work. If the kiss lands half on the lips, half on the lower cheek and lingers, it’s definitely crossing a line if I’m not into the guy. Usually all it takes is a dirty look and an “en serio?” (basically, “dude, seriously?”) or a firm “qué onda?” (similar to a “WTF?”) and boundaries are established.

On words

This one has way more grey areas for me than touch. While there are some things that are easily recognized as ‘normal’ behavior here, such as emails or texts ending in abrazos or besos (hugs or kisses), in other situations it’s trickier for me. There’s a word here called “chamuyo”, which I roughly translate as “the art of bullshit”. Some guy who tells me “you have stunning eyes and the way the sunlight is reflecting off your hair makes you look like a goddess” could be sincere and be trying to poetically hit on me, or just be a chamuyero unconsciously throwing out pretty word play that means absolutely nothing to him.

I’ve learned to accept and even embrace certain parts of the language here that might put my guard up in English. Being casually called bella and linda (beautiful and pretty) by a stranger doesn’t creep me out or in any way make me feel that the person is not recognizing that I have positive qualities other than my looks. I have blue eyes and I get comments from men here on how pretty my eyes are, and I’ve had to realize that blue eyes aren’t as common here as brown so they just get noticed more. I don’t need to let it go to my head or assume it’s a total pick-up line (although, let’s be honest, yes, sometimes it is. That’s where tone and vibe comes in helpful for discerning).

So where do I draw the line?  Unwanted comments, no matter how ‘flattering’, on my ass or breasts are not okay for me, no matter what the culture might consider to be normal or flattering.  Incessant catcalling on the street is not acceptable. Too much chamuyo from a man I know darn well is married or in a serious, supposedly monogamous relationship makes me uncomfortable and annoyed and I make that apparent.

I’ve found that in general, their intention has been to make me feel flattered. If I tell a man clearly and firmly that their actions are being seen as unwanted, creepy, or inappropriate, most back off right away and many have even apologized for making me uncomfortable.

On clear communication

Clear communication (verbal or nonverbal) is important in any human relationship in any culture, but it really becomes obvious when trying to mesh two different cultures and possibly two different languages.  Sometimes I need to feel heard, and a typical Argentine response to an stressful issue is “Tranquila, no pasa nada” (“Chill out, it’s no big deal”). I recognize that their intention is good and is simply to try to calm me down, but I’ve learned to express that sometimes it is a big deal and whatever is going on needs to be directly acknowledged in order for me to move through and past it.

I’ve also had to be very clear about what stereotypically-female roles here I’m okay with accepting and taking on, and which I am not. If I cook all day, I’m not that down with being expected to wash all of the dishes while they guy sits on his ass watching fútbol drinking a Quilmes.  I also make it clear that if I invite people over to my house for a traditional barbecue (asado), I will be the asador cooking the meat. Most men here that I have known have a difficult time allowing a woman to take over this stereotypically-male role.  Many Argentine women I know have zero interest in challenging this cultural programming, and that’s okay. I want to set an example for those who do want to challenge it that I think it’s perfectly reasonable for a woman to cook meat if she wants to.

Any cross-cultural relationship requires compromise. I’ve needed to find clarity within myself on what issues are so important to me that they would be deal-breakers if I didn’t have them. I also need to be clear to myself which issues I’m willing to tolerate. The same needs to happen from any close Argentine friend or partner of mine if we are going to have a successful relationship. For example, I’ve toned down on my need for punctuality in a partner and have written timeliness off if I don’t want to drive myself crazy living here.  One thing I’ve had to communicate that I am not so open to accepting is being affectionately called “gorda” (literal translation “fattie”, but here it is used as an endearing term and is not necessarily a reflection of weight).  Nope. Not in love with that one.  Probably will never be, and I vocalize that.

On chivalry

In Argentina it’s not been uncommon to have men open doors for me, offer me their seat on the crowded subway or bus, or to pick up the check (whether it’s a first or fiftieth date or a business meeting).  I met this with initial resistance, such as “What the hell?  Do you honestly think I can’t open my own door, stand for five minutes, or pay my own way?”. I’ve chilled out a ton and have even learned to appreciate these as kind gestures and nothing more.

The money issue still gets to me the most. Some part of me still feels the need to be seen as  economically independent and stubbornly show the world that I can make it quite fine on my own, thanks.  I’ve had to confront and work through personal issues I have about accepting with grace. It’s easier for me to give than to receive. So many times it’s more of a priority for me to be able to say a simple, sincere ‘thank you’ as the check is being picked up than to fight to pay. I have invited men out at times, my treat, but I make it incredibly clear from the get-go in the invitation that it’s important for me to pay as a gesture of my recognition and appreciation for all of the times that they have treated me.

I still have a lot of work cut out for me on not feeling like a man paying my way is taking away from my sense of independence. But for now, I’m doing what I can to flow and accept this part of the culture while still maintaining my sense of self-worth.

At the end of the day, living in a machista culture has challenged me in ways that I am thankful for. I have learned to set strong boundaries for myself, both physically and emotionally, and I have learned to communicate even more clearly.  I have also had to question my own cultural norms from the US to see if they still serve me or if I’m hanging onto them out of habit.  Diving deep into Argentine culture these last nine years has definitely helped me shape my sense of self-worth and has made me recognize that what it means to me to be an independent woman is constantly evolving – and that’s okay.

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