Public Display of Affection, Not for the Overly Conservative

Aug 20 , 2022
By Kidist Yidnekachew

Given how conservative societies are in Ethiopia, strict mores and rules are used in navigating public lives. The one gesture that should not bother us but does is the public display of affection. Of course, what is affectionate for some people could be a bit too much for the public eye, but we should not frown upon something as harmless as putting an arm over a partner’s shoulder.

I was getting my shoes cleaned at a shoeshine on the road the other day and an older man pointed at a lady nearby and said, "how can she let the man put his arm on her?"

I looked at the lady and I did not see anything wrong with the act. He was not even being affectionate; a friend could put their arm over another’s shoulders in such a way.

"What's wrong with that?" I asked. "For all you know, he could be her husband."

To my surprise, the older man replied, “So what if he is her husband? Does he have to be like that in public? They should finish their business at home.”

In some socio-cultural and religious contexts, public displays of affection are not seen lightly. But I tried to explain to the guy, knowing how difficult it is to try to convince people whose beliefs seem to be set in stone. Luckily another younger man backed me up.

"I think you've forgotten the rules as you've gotten older,” he said, which somehow put a smile on the older man’s face.

But I was not smiling. It dawned on me that he was accusing the lady in particular. It was not even her putting her arm around the guy. It was vice-versa. If he should be mad, then it should be at the man. For all we know, maybe she was not comfortable with the idea of the man putting his arm around her shoulder in public either.

Still, she should not be blamed for it. It is okay for a man to urinate in public and litter, but we get angry at women that have a man's hand wrapped around them? It is nonsense.

I remembered this older couple who spent close to 30 years in marriage. Anyone that saw them in public would confuse them for siblings. With time, the romance fades, and respect and commitment somehow carry the relationship, but there should be at least a little flame or attraction left to be displayed. This is not to say those who are constantly being romantic and affectionate are truly in love and will stay in a relationship longer than those who do not display affection in public.

Sometimes when I am on the road, I overhear people talking to their spouses. Usually, it is not clear what relationship they have until they mention their kids. They have pet names for them and even add an emoji or a heart next to their name on their phone, or even put their picture as wallpaper on their phone, but they are very casual when conversing. It is not possible to always talk to our significant other with that romantic tone that signals our love for them, but I think there should be a distinction between how we talk to our spouses and other people. On the other end are unrealistically romanticising couples, where it is hard to miss that they are partners.

For the most part, we do not have the culture of telling our spouses how we feel about them, like saying "I love you" when we hang up the phone or texting them romantic things over the phone. Many Ethiopians think living with a person by itself is proof that love exists and we do not have to say it regularly to let our better halves know how we feel about them. But we should make it a habit of communicating our emotions with our spouses and remind them every now and then that we have made the right decision in picking them as our partners.

PUBLISHED ON Aug 20,2022 [ VOL 23 , NO 1164]

Kidist Yidnekachew is interested in art, human nature and behaviour. She has studied psychology, journalism and communications and can be reached at (

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