We greet each other with a kiss. Alone, in this sense, in the Spanish-speaking world, Argentinean men (at least, the younger generations) greet each other with a kiss. Male visitors from other countries are taken aback at so much unexpected contact. Afterwards, some shy away; they don't want to be touched. Others join in with enthusiasm. All of them ask about the origin of this kissing business.
Someone said that whoever found out why Argentinean men were into kissing would discover the secret of the nation. Indeed, no one has offered a really convincing explanation. Historians say, however, that the custom was current in the louche world of the tango in the 1930s: by which time it was no longer a dance for unaccompanied men.
When I was a teenager, Argentinean men simply shook hands. But about 20 years ago, the fad for kissing started. Some say that the custom arose in the raffish, near-gangsterish world of labor union bosses; that it then passed to the neighboring and similar world of soccer promoters, and from there to the rest of us. Soccer, the melting pot of everything Argentinean, did a great deal to popularize the use of the kiss in greeting. In a famous episode the regnant god of soccer, Diego Armando Maradona, promised Claudio Caniggia that if that afternoon, playing for Boca Juniors, he scored a goal against River Plate, he would give him a "brutal" snog. Caniggia delivered and more than delivered (he scored three), and the resulting match-up was a spectacle barely suitable for family viewing.
It is indeed unusual in the Western world to go around kissing strangers by the dozen
Strange, because soccer is about the most homophobic subculture in a land so homophobic that you wonder where they get the phrase about Buenos Aires being gay-friendly. The ultimate insult in the soccer world is puto (bum-boy) - as in the fan chant, one of the higher achievements of Argentinean poetry, to the effect that the Boquenses (fans and players of Boca) "are all black bum-boys, from Bolivia and Paraguay." When this chant is heard from the stands the referee normally stops the match, not on account of the homophobia, but of the racial and national slur on these neighboring republics (where, unlike white Argentina, a majority of the people are of Indian descent).
It is indeed unusual in the Western world to go around kissing strangers by the dozen. At any sort of gathering, an Argentinean male may kiss 10, 12 or 15 other Argentinean males, with their raspy, slightly sweaty facial surfaces. It is instructive: men learn the ordeal that women must often go through. At the same time, it brings a touch of gender equality to a culture where man and woman, and woman and woman, always greeted each other with kisses. For man and man to do so too clears away some differences.
So here we are. Or were. Because the conservative restoration has set in. Well-brought-up young men - young lord-of-the-pampa ranchers, polo riders, bankers with American MBAs, top rugby players, the alumni of English-speaking religious schools who, time out of mind, have run the city - do not kiss now, and never did. They were, I suppose, too macho. And now their behavior is catching on. The theory of imitative diffusion functions only with passing fads among the populace: the relatively immutable social guidelines followed by the rich have permanent appeal to the middle classes, who lap them up and ask for another helping.
It was from this redoubt that resistance began, and now more and more Argentineans are turning their faces away when a manly kiss is perceived to be approaching. Confusion is growing. Predictable for the immediate future are more cultural collisions - head-on or sideswipes - class conflicts, and kisses blown to the air.