Today I rubbed noses with a complete stranger. Not by accident or in passing like those intentionally-awkward scenes in romantic comedies. We shook hands to greet in western convention, looked each other in the eyes, then he told me “nose-to-nose.” I had never heard of this custom before, so I just kept staring into his eyes while he repeated himself several times. Eventually his colleague explained what I should do for this Māori greeting and I happily obliged with a slow, deliberate nose-to-nose, forehead-to-forehead touch. Inhale. Exhale. Silence.
I had been greeted by Māori women with a cheek kiss and a hug, but this was my first nose salutation. I asked the group if that was unique to male-female greetings, looking for patterns and expectations. The female colleague replied that it wasn’t gender-linked at all and she and I could have done nose-to-nose instead of the cheek kiss. This custom, hongi, is meant to bring people into community. Let us share this slow breath together and erase separation between us.
Typically my reflections on my fellowship are about the work, the great exchange of ideas, and new questions and expanding my community of thought partners. But underlying all of these meetings and conversations is the notion of hongi, really allowing ourselves to be most candid with complete strangers. In contrast, one of the dozen Finnish words that I learned last month was vieras, guest. It was on my name badges and told me which lines to use and gave me an excuse to not follow Finnish cultural cues. I spoke about the opportunity to relish vieras status and be an outsider, the impetuous American, with my Finnish colleagues. I had permission to hug and kiss relative strangers as welcome and thanks.
But here, the Māori perspective is to bring you first into intimacy and teach you the cultural expectations so that you can meet them. I still get to be the American who asks pointed questions and broaches taboo topics. I look forward to seeing how much, if any, hongi will change the quality of relationships that I build over the next few weeks.