Entering the hugging zone: Returning to Greenland’s small society


Part of the Free Hugs campaign, started by Juan Mann in Sydney’s Pitt Street Mall in Australia. Photo: Wikipedia

It’s not often that you get a big warm hug from the airport staff as you board the plane to your next destination. In Greenland, you better get used to it!

That is, if you begin to know everyone in town! From the moment I stepped into the terminal at Copenhagen Airport to return home to Nuuk, the ‘Greenlandic’ experience had already begun.

It started at check-in. The assistants helping at the Air Greenland counters talked to other passengers like they were old friends. Passengers in queues hugged each another. Others gave knowing smiles. Yep, they all knew each other!

It would be strange for any large airline; but that’s just life in Greenland.

I looked on bemused: with all the hugging, it was like boarding a high-school reunion bus, although no one was in uniform.

Familiarity: a product of a small society

There is beauty to such familiarity. For many, the experience of ‘coming home’ already began at the airport, even while we were still seven hours away from touch down and in another country.

How fresh. I could not imagine having a plane experience like this going home to Australia. On this flight home to Nuuk via Kangerlussuaq I vaguely recognised a few people from around town.

The level of familiarity is a contagious feeling. Everyone smiles at everyone. Even me, the Greenlandic lookalike. (They think they know me, or that I’m a friend of a cousin). What the heck, I just smiled back anyway.

That’s one of the lovely things about a small country – everyone tries to be friendly, at least on a surface level.

Social etiquette: navigating the streets

It’s not only at the airport where you have this feeling of social intimacy. Having lived in Greenland for 8 months, even I have started to feel somewhat like a local. I can still walk around downtown and be anonymous, but the chances of meeting someone I know are constantly growing.

This presents new problems. Problems I’ve never had to think about before. Like, do I stop and talk to them? In Australia, if I met anyone at the local shopping centre it wouldn’t be a question. Of course I would have a chat!

If a Greenlander stopped to talk every time they met someone they knew, they would never get anywhere. I can tell you that the pace of life is generally more relaxed already!

Therefore, I’m learning another type of etiquette. As a rule, I just say hello, and if anyone wants to talk I will let him or her start the conversation. The long-time locals are the superstars of Nuuk society, after all.

When do you enter the hugging zone?

The other thing I am yet to figure out is how to greet a friendly acquaintance when you see them in town. Obviously, Greenlanders hug each other, but when do you enter the hugging zone?

I’ve always been confused about this. In Australia there is no one rule. Some people shake hands, others hug, still more kiss on the cheek, and the rest do a complicated mix of a kiss, hug and shake (a hug-atini). I almost wish that I was French; then I could be safe knowing that it was my moral duty to culturally imperialise the world two kisses at a time.

The reason I mention this is that I’ve been pleasantly surprised to receive some hugs from Greenlanders who I only know by name. There were other times when I felt like I should have greeted a friend with a hug, but then the moment passed when I was hesitating. Which left me reflecting if I had made a social faux-pas by standing still?

As I write this on the plane to Kangerlussuaq, I can genuinely say that I’m excited to return to Greenland again. It’s home, after all, and perhaps I’ll figure out the pickle of the hugging zone. Soon, I hope!

PS If the plane was the bus to the high school reunion, then Kangerlussuaq airport (the main hub in the country) WAS the high school reunion! I felt like the loner in the playground… which was rather alright with me 😉

Note: Written while on the plane home… published a bit later….

7 thoughts on “Entering the hugging zone: Returning to Greenland’s small society

  1. Pingback: On Animal Planet: The dog whisperer from Nuuk! | The Fourth Continent

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  3. Well being another foreigner in Nuuk, albeit on year 8, I would say do as you would in Aussieland, stop and talk to the people you know, when it fits in. Sometimes it can make grocery shopping a 2 hour exercise, but not always 🙂

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