On a Wednesday afternoon in Manhattan, a man and a woman nestled closely beside each other on a bench in Washington Square Park. As the man leaned over and began gently massaging the woman’s upper thigh, she stabbed at the small bowl of mixed fruit in her lap with a fork and began to feed him.
According to the couple, this kind of display of public affection suits them. It’s physical, but not in a sexual way. It’s how they choose to care for each other, they explained.
“I am really shy, so I like hand-holding, I like kisses or little hugs here and there,” said Mariama Condé, a 22-year-old drama student at N.Y.U. “But I don’t think we would fully make out around here or in the middle of the park.”
Charlie Andreoulakis, 22, her boyfriend of one year, agreed: “We’re kind of on the same page. That’s why we’re together.”
The couple said they hadn’t given much thought to their views on public displays of affection, or P.D.A., until they were asked. But in talking it over, it quickly became clear how contextual feelings on the subject can be.
We all think we know which lines we’re willing to cross in public with the person we’re with, but are they drawn in pencil, or ink? What if you’re at a work event or around family? What if it’s still early in the relationship and you don’t want to cross boundaries? What if your partner enjoys a full-on French kiss at a bar and all you can muster up is a discreet lacing of fingers? And how does this affect the relationship?
Alexandria King, a project coordinator at a children’s art nonprofit, is not currently in a relationship. But she said that she has always loved P.D.A.
“We should hold hands or you should feel comfortable giving me a kiss in front of people, because I feel like our relationship isn’t only behind closed doors,” she said. Ms. King added that she probably wouldn’t be affectionate in a corporate or work space, but that she was fine doing so around family and friends or in public.
“Hand-holding, little pecks, light hugs, that type of thing,” she said.
When the topic of P.D.A. collides with celebrity relationships, fans with parasocial tendencies are quick to form theories about the meaning of this kiss or that hug.
Over Memorial Day weekend, many people on social media reacted to a video showing the actor Damson Idris and his girlfriend, the model Lori Harvey, at a Beyoncé concert. In one clip, Mr. Idris leans over to kiss her while swaying back and forth as Ms. Harvey cocks her head slightly to receive his kiss on her cheek before turning away and smiling.
Although the clip lasted just eight seconds, many online became self-certified body language experts. One Twitter user assumed the gesture meant she wasn’t “feeling” him. Another argued that maybe she just doesn’t like P.D.A. One person said that he’s just madly in love. Many suggested that a breakup was looming.
For the average person, being comfortable with P.D.A. is probably easier without the fear of cameras capturing every second, despite the rise of people filming strangers in public for content. But depending on the relationship dynamic, there are still other concerns over how it may be perceived or the discomfort a partner may have with it.
Ms. Condé, who is of West African descent and was raised Muslim, said that the one place she probably wouldn’t engage in P.D.A. with her boyfriend was around her family — “out of respect,” she said, and in deference to cultural norms. And being in an interracial relationship, they have received comments from passers-by for simply being together.
“They just go in on it like they’re complimenting, but it feels like ostracization in a way,” Ms. Condé said. “But it’s never made us not want to hold hands, it’ll just throw me off.”
David Mendoza, 29, a manager at a home health clinic, said that a difference in opinion over P.D.A. was one of the reasons he and his boyfriend broke up three weeks ago: “He’s not so into P.D.A., and I need P.D.A.”
“Our love language is different,” Mr. Mendoza added. “I’m very touchy, I want to hug him, hold his hands. He started slowly opening up to it, but he was forcing it and I was asking too much.”
Mr. Mendoza, who lives in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan, said that before the breakup, he would enjoy holding hands or even playfully grab his boyfriend’s butt at the movie theater, but they would never fully make out.
He said that his ex, who is younger than him, was very self-conscious about P.D.A. as a gay couple, and would look around to see who was watching and whether it was safe for them to be publicly affectionate.
“I used to be like that, but I just opened up myself a little bit more,” Mr. Mendoza said, adding that his ex would reassure him that he loved him, he just expresses it differently.
P.D.A., or a lack of it, isn’t always indicative of the health of a relationship. And sometimes a rejection of P.D.A. can have less to do with how you feel about the act and more to do with how you feel about the person. It’s difficult to determine, because there are so many factors, like location, context, identity and relationship status, that may affect our perspectives.
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Gina Cherelus is a reporter for The Times’s Styles desk who covers a range of topics including culture and trends. @jeanuh_
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