Adjusting To Social Isolation When Hugs And Kisses Are Central To Your Culture

In some communities, not showing physical affection is seen as a sign of disrespect.

By Joy DiazMarch 20, 2020 9:30 am, ,

Our tools to combat a virus that has spread worldwide are simple. We’ve been told to wash our hands, don’t touch our faces and practice “social isolation.”

This last one seems easy but it can be difficult to achieve, specially if you come from a culture that demands hugs or kisses as part of greetings. And when that contact is not provided, it may be taken as a sign of disrespect.

This week Jennifer Jacobus, the sister of Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz, turned 40. She’s a Latina. The question was: should this milestone be celebrated or not?

Several considerations were on the table: at the time, on Sunday March 15, the recommendation was to avoid gatherings of 250 people or more. There was no way 250 were to attend. Plus, Jacobus has been battling an illness since 2016, so making it to the age of 40 was worthy of a celebration.

Family and some friends attended. But, to kiss or not to kiss among Latinos is a heart-wrenching decision.

University of Texas anthropologist Richard Flores says culture may weigh heavily on us – but it is “not an iron cage.” When the decision to be made is between keeping a group healthy, or honoring our cultural norms, culture “[is] not something we inhabit and therefore there is very little latitude in how we sync back.”

According to Flores, social isolation is an achievable goal. But it is harder when you live in a multigenerational household, like Yuri Ramírez. She is married with three young children. And her mother lives with the family – her mother has a disability.

“My mother is deaf,” says Ramírez, “so, there is no way that we can isolate ourselves from her.”

Her mom is at higher risk to be severely affected by COVID-19 because she is elderly, overweight and has asthma.

But, if grandma gets sick, Ramírez says there’s no way she can be left alone.

We have to be able to see her so she can sign to us and we can understand what she’s telling us,” she says.

The North Austin Muslim Community Center is a congregation lead by Imam Islam Mossaad. Just like the rest of Texas, this faith community is multicultural and multigenerational. People from about 60 different nations attend the congregation, and they’re from many touchy, feely cultures. That’s why Imam Mossaad cancelled their main service on Fridays as a way to encourage social isolation.

Joy Diaz

Imam Islam Mossaad

“We are educating our congregation that a part of our religion is to protect life and to protect health. It is beyond rituals of worship,” Mossaad says.

But, the holy month of Ramadan is coming up in April. A big part of the celebration includes fasting during the day and breaking the fast during the evening with a communal dinner at the mosque. It is a heartbreaking decision but the celebration would totally go against the current norms of social isolation

Anthropologist Richard Flores says this global pandemic is tough on many levels: on people of faith who value gathering in big groups, on people who greet by touching no matter what, on people who live in closed quarters with many people.

But, Flores’ hope lies in looking at this moment through a historical lens. As he puts it, the human race has faced so much over thousands of millions of years and “[it] continues to survive.” In the end, Flores says the same will happen this time, “we will be changed, but we will survive somehow.”