We need one another.
Humans are social beings. As we practice social distancing we’re realizing that physical contact is more important than we thought it was.
Limiting physical interaction is a major change for most of us. All of a sudden, we‘re avoiding touch.
Before Covid-19, a handshake was generally accepted as a polite greeting. There are some cultures where other greetings are more accepted, but generally, the handshake was the ‘go to’ way to say hello.
- Long ago, when you met a stranger on the road, they could be a friend or a foe. It was important to decide quickly whether they posed a threat. Showing your hands openly was a way to show that you weren’t holding a weapon and were not a threat. Some say that’s how the handshake evolved.
- In Greece in the 5th century BC, it is said that the handshake was a signal that you were peaceful in your intentions. The handshake may have originated in Medieval Europe. When greeting one another, one knight would shake the other knight’s hand, in an effort to shake any weapons loose. That early handshake would be much more forceful than the light touches of today.
In some circles, a firm handshake is considered sign of strength.
When Trump was first elected, he generated a lot of talk because of his aggressive handshake. When he met leaders of other countries he would opt for a handshake, instead of respecting their traditional form of greeting. Taking their hand in a firm grip he would pull them in hard, often putting them off balance. He would hold their hand for too long, sometimes making them visibly uncomfortable. He would sometimes put out his hand and then pull it away, embarrassing the other person.
It was a signal that he was in charge. It was also a public show of disrespect. This ritual was so obvious that it was widely covered in the media. There were several awkward moments until the leaders realized they had to counter with a power move of their own. Trudeau countered his jerky handshake by grasping Trumps shoulder with his left hand, to ensure he wasn’t pulled in.
A handshake is often used to seal a deal; to make a promise you would shake on it.
The handshake isn’t the only ritual we use. In other parts of the world, different greetings evolved.
In the East, people may greet each other with a polite bow called a ‘wai’. You touch your hands together as if in prayer and slightly bow or nod, depending on the rank of the other person. This greeting shows that your hands are empty of a weapon, so presumably you aren’t a threat.
Air kissing is appropriate or even expected in some Latin American countries, especially when greeting a friend.
The ritual of social kissing shows friendship or kinship and it’s very common in parts of Europe. In some cultures, you give multiple kisses on each cheek, repeated two or three times. Most of the time the kisses are light or air kisses as you bring your face in close to the other person’s cheek.
What is considered appropriate in one country may be considered too forward in another.
Hugging or a hug/handshake is common in Germany as well as the United States, sometimes a two-handed shake is the version that is preferred.
Now that we’re in a global pandemic, the issue of greeting has become a dilemma.
In most cases, the hallowed handshake and friendly kissing are off-limits.
People are skeptical about who they approach and tend to avoid any physical contact. We are told to stay at least 6 feet away from one another. NEVER go closer than 6 feet without someone’s consent.
What to do, what to do.
As we grapple with this change, we’re experimenting.
- The ‘wai’ or polite bow is a perfect way to show respect without the need to touch or approach another person.
- A salute is an option that has a jaunty nautical feel and may be more appropriate in a casual situation. Some are discouraging the salute because it encourages us to touch our faces.
- You could consider giving a thumbs up or a slight wave. A broad smile is always a welcome greeting.
- Some prefer the no-touch greeting of words.
- I’ve had a good friend wiggle their bum and give me a mock hug. That one hasn’t gained a lot of traction worldwide, but it’s common in my circles Maybe we’ll become famous for the ‘islander tail wag’.
- Then there is the ‘Wuhan shake’. It is when two people extend their leg and tap the insides of each other’s shoe. This requires closer contact than the bow or salute, so while many see it as a possible option to the handshake, it should never be tried without someone’s consent. Often it sparks humor, as people shyly try it on for size.
- A more complicated version of the Wuhan shake has been widely shared as a TikTok challenge. I encourage you to check it out.
- Something else I’ve seen is when two people to touch elbows. This practice is NOT recommended because people have been taught to cough into their elbow. If an infected person touches your elbow with theirs, it’s obviously more risky than other greetings.
Ultimately, it’s better to greet each other from six feet away. That leads to the question:
How can you steer a middle path and come away unhugged?
Decide in advance what you’re comfortable with. If you don’t want to air kiss or hug someone it’s your choice.
Changing the way you greet will feel strange at first, but more people are realizing that close greetings transmit germs and we need to consider our options.
If you end up in a hug you don’t want, give a quick hug back and then simply let go. Usually, the other person will follow suit. A half hug or a stiff one-armed hug back unmistakably says ‘I’m uncomfortable, but I’m trying to be polite.’
If you want to change the greeting style, initiate it yourself.
Don’t wait for the other person to move in for a big hug or air kiss. Sticking out your hand is usually a signal that you would prefer a handshake instead.
In most cases, if you stick out your hand, the other person will follow your lead and shake — even if they were planning to hug.
Or step back and wave.
It’s all about showing respect and being friendly after all.
Then go wash your hands.
Previously published on Medium.com.
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