In Turkey, I'm always being told that I'm cold.
I turn it into something of a joke with students, where we do a lesson about greetings and physical contact around the world. I explain to them that while Turks hug and kiss and touch quite casually, we Canadians like a lot of personal space. I joke that hugging is impractical in a northern nation. Each party is so bundled up in winterwear that our nerves barely register the physical contact. I tell them that, to us casual flannel-wearers, air kisses seem forced and fake and Paris Hiltonian. It's an exaggerated rationale, it panders to stereotypes, and I know that it's filled with inaccuracies.
But we get a laugh out of it, and the students understand that I'm just not touchy and it's not personal, and things are fine.
At my current school in Istanbul, we had a teacher's meeting where a fellow foreign teacher brought up the childrens' daily efforts to hug and kiss her. "Could you tell the kids that it's not personal, that I'm not rejecting them?" she asked. "I think some of them have hurt feelings, but it's just not something I do." The Turkish teachers all muttered to one another. "You mean Canadian teachers never touch the kids? Not even to say hello?" This seemed so odd in a society where embraces are shared between friends, colleagues, neighbours, even your favourite shopkeeper.
As a teacher, I've never been a fan of getting all mummy-like with the kids. Wiping snotty noses, wiping baseless tears, wiping up spilled juice boxes; wiping of any kind is just not part of what I do. I teach, I make them laugh, I usher kids quietly out to the hall if they get upset and need to cool off. I try to take interest in their lives and their development as wee human beings. In Turkey (in fact, in several countries), the teachers seem to have more emotionally intimate relationships with their students. They hug and kiss the kids, and are hugged and kissed in return. Physical affection is constant.
Maybe in our lawsuit-happy North American culture, teachers fear that one comforting exchange with a kid will sent them to court. Maybe it's our PC-sensitive fear of someone uttering those career-killing words, sexual harassment. Maybe the past few decades of pedophile cases have turned innocently kind teachers into overly cautious ones. But in truth, I think it's just a cultural thing.
At my old school, an adult class had their final lesson after three months together. They stood around the classroom expectantly, and when I dismissed them again ("go home and sleep! You've earned it!") they moved to the hallways to stand around expectantly. For them, saying a goodbye without hugs or kisses didn't give due honour to our class bond. While they respected my Canadian hesitations when it comes to physical contact, it made them feel a little weird.
After that, I decided to make more of an effort to loosen the heck up and go with the Turkish flow a little more. It's one thing for me to save myself from discomfort, but it's another to make others uncomfortable as a result. So now, when my sixth-graders hug me in greeting, I hug them back and it's not so weird. When my teenaged students greet me with kisses on the cheek, it's a little weird, but I do it. I still give the ol' physical contact talk and tell them I'm not used to such touchiness, but I want to make more of an effort to meet them halfway.
Now, H1N1 panic has hit the school, and parents are sending their kiddies off to class armed with huge bottles of hand sanitizer. This causes the whole room to stink of fruit-scented antiseptic (a strong smell, but a huge improvement on previous classroom odours). Now, the kids are germ-panicked and hyper-clean. Now, the new greeting-du-jour is an offering of Purell to your friend or teacher's outstretched hands. And it's one that suits me fine.