Saying “I Love You” Around The World
Looking for love in other locales? Read our cultural primer below to familiarize yourself with the myriad ways that couples express their affection for each other differently across the globe.
"I love you."
Those three little words pack so much meaning — in the U.S., at least. Every culture has a different way of expressing romantic love, with words, gestures, and small tokens of affection that vary all across the globe. Will flowers be welcomed in
Russia? What would you do to show how much you care in Japan? And just how should you tell someone in the Czech Republic that you've fallen in love with that person? Read on to find out.
|In the U.S., 'I love you' can also be used among friends…|
Choosing the right time to express your feelings for someone
When Jillian — a Washington state native who works a Japanese-English translator — began dating her now-husband (who's Japanese), a few things initially got lost in translation on his end. "My fool of a husband said 'I love you' to me in English after about three dates, I think, because he was used to it not meaning as much in Japanese," Jillian recalls. "I had to explain that it was generally reserved for a more developed emotion in English!"
This disconnect was likely due to the fact that in Japanese, the most common way to say "I love you" is "Suki da," which literally means "like." It can be used casually to say that you like someone or something, but it's also used to express love amongst couples. "I suppose you liken this to American teenagers stressing the difference between 'Do you like him, or do you like-like him?'" Jillian says.
Other cultures, too, move a little quicker when expressing their feelings than most Americans do, with differing emotional weights attached to comparable phrases used around the world. "Comparing the U.S. emphasis on how big of a deal it is when a boyfriend says 'I love you' to the Dominican Republic, Dominicans would seem like they toss the phrase around frivolously," says Christina Ygona, an American who visited the Caribbean nation while working with the Peace Corps.
While variants of "I love you" are used more casually in some countries, others are more serious about how the phrase should be used. "In the U.S., 'I love you' can also be used among friends — which would not be acceptable in the Czech Republic," explains Czech student Annie Niesnerová. "The phrase 'I love you' ('Miliju tì') is used only if we mean it for real, like if our love is really strong," she explains, adding: "More often, we use 'I like you' ('Mám tì rád(a)') among friends or to express our affection for someone when it's not yet a deep relationship."
For some, using the "L" word can be confusing
With only one word for "love" in English, some find it confusing trying to distinguish between the various types of love without having different words to convey each particular meaning. In Latin American countries, for example, there are two basic phrases: "Te quiero" and "Te amo." The first is used casually by friends, family members and couples (similarly to "I love you"), whereas the latter carries a more dramatic connotation that only applies to an amour. "In my relationships, saying 'te quiero' was no big deal, but 'te amo' was a very big relationship moment — quickly followed by a marriage proposal. It's something you really don't say to every enamorado," says Ella, a Peace Corps volunteer who lived in Peru for
nearly three years. "I think that the fact that English speakers use the same word to express 'te quiero' and 'te amo' throws a lot of Spanish speakers off. One man I was talking to was almost offended that we would think that those two emotions are similar."
|In Japan, those kinds of overt displays aren't part of the courtship process.|
Fellow Peru Peace Corps volunteer Elizabeth Bergner agrees, adding: "I had a Colombian friend who expressed frustration that there wasn't a distinction in English for different levels of love. He asked me what you say when you want to express that feeling that you love someone so much you can't live without that person, i.e., 'te amo.' I told him you have to say, 'I love you so much I can't live without you.'"
How showing your love in different countries can vary
Words aren't the only way to express your feelings for someone. And while romantic gestures can vary greatly from country to country, there are some common ones used in the U.S. that wouldn't go over well in other locales. For example: Sending an even number of flowers in Russia signifies death, so you wouldn't want to present your beloved with a dozen roses. There's one thing every culture has in common, though — the best gestures are the ones that show how much you really care.
"Not just in Peru, but in Ecuador, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Honduras as well, when you walk down the street with a man, he walks on the side where the cars are — and you (as the woman) walk on the side where the buildings are," Ella says. "It's supposed to protect you from traffic, animals, etc."
In the Czech Republic, Annie says that you'll find gestures such as "a smile, a hug, a heart made by your fingers, a kiss sent by air, or simply being polite and nice" which signify your affection, and that it also helps "to be a good listener and helper." Down in Brazil, the romantic culture is all about public displays of affection. "I remember a lot of making out on park benches," says Brandon Wilson, who performed mission work in Rio de Janeiro for two years.
In Japan, those kinds of overt displays aren't part of the courtship process — a kiss in public would draw stares, and even hand-holding is considered risqué for some… particularly for people belonging to older generations. Instead, Japanese couples express their affection by finding little ways of taking care of each other. Men might carry their girlfriends' bags, while "for women, making a bento ('boxed lunch') for their husband, boyfriend, or a guy they like is seen as a loving gesture, and many men might brag about or envy each other's aisai bento ('beloved-wife bento')," explains Jillian.
Love transcends cultural boundaries, sure — but words don't necessarily do the same thing. So whether you're saying "Gráím thú" in Ireland (Irish), "Asavakkit" in Greenland (Greenlandic), or "Ek's lief vir jou" in Namibia (Afrikaans), make sure you mean it — and know what you're saying beforehand.
Haley Shapley is a freelance writer based in Seattle. She's always liked the sound of "Je t'aime" better than "I love you."