Let’s shake on it

A hug, a hand­shake, two kisses, or a firm squeeze – when did say­ing hello be­come so com­pli­cated? Tom La­mont meets and greets

The Guardian - Weekend - - Contents - Il­lus­tra­tions: Lee Woodgate

The new rules for meet­ing and greet­ing

Two or three times a week, I leave my young son with a child­min­der be­fore tak­ing my daugh­ter to nurs­ery. It used to be that, when first meet­ing the min­der or the teacher who was about to take charge of them for the day, I’d grip their up­per arm in greet­ing – a ges­ture by which I think I meant “Hello” and “Thank you”, as well as some­thing like: “Please don’t let any­thing hap­pen to them in the foam zone or dur­ing scis­sors time.” A hand­shake felt too for­mal in the cir­cum­stances, a wave too cold, an em­brace too much. There aren’t any cheat sheets or ob­vi­ous eti­quette guides to steer our be­hav­iour in such mo­ments, though, so, like a lot of peo­ple, I pan­icked, winged it, and evolved a near-ran­dom habit of greet­ing that af­ter a while I came to queasily trust was ac­cept­able. Ac­tu­ally, I was feel­ing pretty con­fi­dent about that arm squeeze, un­til I men­tioned it to friends. “You do what?” They were in­cred­u­lous. “You grip the teacher where?” “It’s the fore­arm,” some­one said. “You can only put your hand on the fore­arm in a re­la­tion­ship like this.”

“No squeez­ing.” →

“You can squeeze,” some­one said, “lightly.” Some­one else said: “Why are you touch­ing them at all? Un­less these teach­ers are, like, your close friends? Or your sib­lings?”

Brits are all over the place when it comes to our meth­ods of phys­i­cal in­tro­duc­tion: in­con­sis­tent, con­trar­ian, un­sat­is­fi­able. The hand­shake, a sta­ple to Per­son A, can seem like bar­bar­ian over­reach to Per­son B. Get­ting a new job might mean trad­ing a huggy work­place for one that’s fros­tily hands-free, or vice versa, with­out this switch in pro­to­col be­ing prop­erly ex­plained till you’re there, squeezed un­der a boss’s armpit, or mutely flick­ing up eye­brows at some dis­tant col­leagues wear­ing head­phones.

Per­haps it’s no sur­prise that we’re puz­zled, and puz­zling, when it comes to this stuff, given our his­tory. Fiercely cod­i­fied Ed­war­dian mores were force-fed through two wars, and what jum­ble of habits re­mained af­ter that pushed on through postwar im­mi­gra­tion, the erod­ing of an over­ripe class sys­tem, waves of sex­ual and po­lit­i­cal change, shift­ing in­cli­na­tions to imi­tate Euro­peans and Amer­i­cans, the warp­ing ef­fects of com­mu­ni­ca­tion by com­puter and text mes­sage, as well as those re­cent pause-for-thought mo­ments brought about by the #MeToo cam­paign. Not to men­tion the end­less see­saw­ing shifts in fash­ion that brought in and out of use the cus­tomised hand­shake, strat­a­gems for clutch­ing, the peace sign, air-kiss­ing. What a mess. What a mine­field.

Af­ter my fright with the up­per-arm squeeze, I won­dered what else I was do­ing dif­fer­ently from other peo­ple. So over a few weeks I sur­veyed more than 50 peo­ple on the sub­ject, all Bri­tish or Britain-based but of dif­fer­ent ages, back­grounds, sex­u­al­i­ties, re­gions, cul­tures and em­ploy­ment. The youngest re­spon­dent was 19, the old­est 79. Some peo­ple had been qui­etly stew­ing on these things for years, and oth­ers had never prop­erly an­a­lysed their ac­tions be­fore. I asked about habits and un­cer­tain­ties, where peo­ple were in­con­sis­tent and where they wished for greater clar­ity, and what sug­ges­tions they had to help us nor­malise this sham­bles.

I heard many in­trigu­ing ad­mis­sions, of­fered on the con­di­tion of anonymity, for in­stance about the life­long best friends who never touched in greet­ing (“We bow our heads slightly”) or the peo­ple who’d never so much as hugged their fa­thers (“I’m not sure his body knows how to con­tort it­self into a hug­ging po­si­tion”). Peo­ple talked me through Ghana­ian hand-slaps (“You do it with en­thu­si­asm and gusto, and then click the other per­son’s fin­gers”) and Turk­ish hand-kisses (“You kiss the back of an el­der’s hand and place it on your fore­head briefly”).

Only on one sub­ject was there broad agree­ment: mums. Mums get a hug and a kiss in greet­ing; for most peo­ple this was the one un­com­pli­cated, un­hesi­tat­ing trans­ac­tion that came nat­u­rally.

Who’s kiss­ing who: how we greet now

‘He gets an awk­ward hug’: dads

A num­ber of those I in­ter­viewed de­scribed an ev­ery­day clum­si­ness around their sib­lings (“My brothers get a nod and an ‘All right’, un­less it’s Eid or a fu­neral or one of us is leav­ing on a mas­sive trip”) but this was noth­ing like the pickle peo­ple got into around their fa­thers. A male mar­ket trader told me that he and his dad had set­tled on “three to four kisses per year” – their dif­fi­culty was know­ing if and when an oc­ca­sion was ex­cep­tional enough to use them. A school­boy was un­both­ered (“I don’t use any means of phys­i­cal con­tact to greet my fa­ther”) but among older men a note of yearn­ing was more com­mon if they did not feel able to kiss or em­brace their dads: “I sort of shake hands with him, but then hold the hand, briefly.”

A TV pro­ducer said: “I’ll usu­ally greet my dad with a wave and a nod. He’s al­ways been a big dis­ci­plinar­ian, typ­i­cally African and proud, and liv­ing in Eng­land for over 35 years hasn’t changed that.” Among those who were com­fort­able kiss­ing their fa­thers, there were other com­pli­ca­tions. “My dad gets an awk­ward hug and he kisses my head,” said a fe­male re­spon­dent. A standup co­me­dian said she’d had to come to terms with funny glances com­ing her way when­ever she gave her dad “a quick peck on the lips. It does seem odd to other peo­ple, but we’ve al­ways done it and it’s never led to in­cest.”

I was most struck by the re­sponse from a se­cu­rity guard, who said that be­fore his fa­ther died they used to greet each other with the same rou­tine: firm hand­shake, fol­lowed by sloppy dou­ble kiss. It was as if the hand­shake, like some for­mal red tape that had to be taken care of, al­lowed them into a looser in­ti­macy.

‘It’s chaos. I’ve kissed ears’: col­leagues

A teacher was un­abashed: hugs are in. “Teach­ing is like that: at the end of the week, it’s hugs for close col­leagues.” Those who worked in of­fices were more likely to balk at con­tact. “I like a wave and a ‘Hey’,” said a solic­i­tor, which seemed the view of the ma­jor­ity. In of­fices where the no-con­tact greet­ing is stan­dard, the rules seem to get com­pro­mised af­ter any sort of hol­i­day or break from the daily rou­tine. “It’s chaos. I’ve kissed ears, shaken an ex­tended fist, had my hand­shake crushed against a groin as they’ve hugged me.”

Peo­ple note the in­con­sis­ten­cies brought about by af­ter-work drinks or sea­sonal par­ties – par­tic­u­larly say­ing good­bye at the end. The boss at a man­age­ment con­sul­tancy said: “I of­ten take a faux phone call, to es­cape the milling.” Quite a few women made the same com­plaint: why should they be ex­pected to fol­low up a hand­shake with a kiss, only be­cause they were women? A film­maker said: “Posh men do this – they pull you in by the hand, and once they in­sti­gate it, it’s very hard to get out of.” One re­cent im­prove­ment, though: “I have def­i­nitely had my knee pat­ted a lot less since the #MeToo move­ment.” The solic­i­tor added: “I would far pre­fer it if it was cus­tom­ary for women as well as men to do just hand­shakes; it would put women on the same foot­ing from the get-go.” →

‘High five, with­out fail’: other peo­ple’s chil­dren Peo­ple spoke of im­pro­vis­ing their own spe­cial tech­nique for greet­ing chil­dren, any­thing from fond to frosty, but there was no con­sen­sus. “Head pat… Hair ruf­fle… En­thu­si­as­tic wave… A curt nod and a please-move-on-now look… I kneel down to their level and ask if they are all right… High five, with­out fail, nor­mally mak­ing them miss the first time… Ironic hand­shake… High five and a lot of noise… I sort of lean into their faces and boom ‘Hello’ in what’s prob­a­bly quite a dis­tress­ing way.”

Bend­ing to a child’s level felt im­por­tant to peo­ple. But a fa­ther of three smartly pointed out: “They don’t care ei­ther way.”

‘Long, rock­ing bear-hugs’: friends

A 19-year-old told me that “phys­i­cal con­tact among peo­ple my age is op­tional. We set­tle for a sim­ple ‘Hi’ or ‘Hello’, un­less you haven’t seen each other in a while, are best friends or in a ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship.” Most older re­spon­dents stated a fond­ness for per­son­alised greet­ings. “If I re­ally like some­one, I give their back a rub while I hug, like they’re a good horse. For those I’m clos­est to, I’ll pause af­ter the ini­tial hug and then squeeze.”

Stress lev­els be­gan to rise, peo­ple said, when it came to man­ag­ing these cus­tomised hel­los all at once. Re­spon­dents spoke about cir­cling liv­ing rooms or pubs, try­ing to re­mem­ber their lev­els of in­ti­macy with friends on the fly. “One- or two-arm hug? Arm clutches? Or no arm clutches?” A few told sto­ries about awk­wardly up­grad­ing their greet­ings pack­age so that it matched that of the cher­ished per­son present – and sud­denly there they were in long, rock­ing bear-hugs with near strangers. Friends’ part­ners, ap­par­ently, present spe­cial dif­fi­cul­ties. “Strangely dodgy ter­ri­tory,” one re­spon­dent said, match­ing the feel­ings of about a quar­ter of those I in­ter­viewed. Peo­ple re­ported that greet­ings might come flavoured with fris­son (“Some­times one or other of you goes for the ex­tra kiss and it pro­duces that mo­ment, where you al­most kiss on the lips”) or some­thing like stage fright (“There’s a sort of hall­way freeze”). A Mus­lim woman said: “I’m not sup­posed to have that much phys­i­cal con­tact with dudes and I used to find it very weird to get kissed on the cheek by my ex-hus­band’s mates.” A mother of two said: “My best friend’s hus­band makes it clear he doesn’t want to be kissed. He sticks out his cheek and says a loud air-kiss­ing ‘Mwah’ which is a rig­ma­role we go through about once a fort­night.”

Hug me, squeeze me: the tech­niques

Bone-crush­ing hand­shakes

Apart from a sweet, softly spo­ken poetry aca­demic, who felt that an ab­so­lute bone-crusher of a hand­shake “should be taught in schools”, the men I in­ter­viewed mostly hated hav­ing their fin­gers vice-squashed in greet­ing. “Deeply twatty,” said a chief ex­ec­u­tive from North York­shire. A char­ity worker agreed: “It’s so pa­thetic and yet it feels in­ap­pro­pri­ate to call them out on it in pub­lic.” A van driver ad­mit­ted: “I was once ad­vised to firm up my hand­shake. Some peo­ple as­so­ciate it with suc­cess and con­fi­dence. I as­so­ciate it with fear.”

There was a sur­pris­ing amount of sym­pa­thy for the strong hand­shake among fe­male re­spon­dents. A stu­dent from Manch­ester said: “I quite like it, it feels im­por­tant”, and a TV pro­ducer said: “I like them. But you need to en­gage with your eyes as well or don’t bother.” Ab­so­lutely no­body came out in de­fence of the al­ter­na­tive. “Don’t slide your hand to­wards me like a limp fish,” said the fe­male ad exec. “Com­mit.”

Kiss­ing cheeks

There was a high de­gree of para­noia when it came to the num­ber of kisses: a ques­tion to which the an­swers dis­played more class- and ge­og­ra­phy­based con­flict than any­where else.

A po­lice of­fi­cer said: “Sin­gle, al­ways the sin­gle kiss”, while a screen­writer gen­tly sug­gested oth­er­wise: “Maybe two if they ini­ti­ate.” An ar­chi­tect ap­proached the mat­ter in terms of aes­thet­ics: “There’s got to be some­thing about be­ing sym­met­ri­cal, right?” An en­tre­pre­neur who’d trial-and-er­rored his way through the num­bers had con­cluded that “the sin­gle is creepy, the triple ab­surd”. (A char­ity worker dis­agreed. “I love the nov­elty value of a triple.”) An aca­demic noted with ap­proval the method of a col­league “who says, as she goes in, ‘I take three’”, while an edi­tor just sounded tired: “I’m not a fan of the kiss on the cheek as a greet­ing full stop. It’s a posh­white-peo­ple thing.” Ac­tu­ally, a lot of peo­ple said some­thing like this. A post of­fice worker stated: “Kiss­ing peo­ple is def­i­nitely a posh thing.” A med­i­cal re­searcher con­fessed: “I’m north­ern, this never comes up, apart from when I’m down south, and then I just do as in­structed.”

A woman in her 30s had had enough. “Just the one. And say clearly, ‘ I just do the one.’”

What to take from all this? For a while, af­ter I’d lis­tened to and di­gested all these anx­i­eties and opin­ions, my meth­ods of in­tro­duc­tion be­came a lit­tle wild – er­ratic. Over a week of nurs­ery dropoffs, I cy­cled through some al­ter­na­tive greet­ing meth­ods, tri­alling one per­son’s sug­ges­tion of “a gen­eral wave” and then an­other, “the foot­ballers’ hand­clutch”. Nei­ther felt right. I drifted back to the arm squeeze: fore­arms only, to be safe.

In other parts of life I tried to take on the more sen­si­ble-sound­ing ad­vice: bend­ing down to ad­dress chil­dren; medium-squeez­ing of­fered hands; dou­ble-kiss­ing posh south­ern­ers and try­ing to read prompts from every­one else, be­fore kiss­ing them. Ac­tu­ally, wiser re­spon­dents had ad­vised some­thing like this in all sce­nar­ios. Make eye con­tact and smile as you greet peo­ple; at that point, if in doubt, be led by them.

More than any­thing, I kept think­ing about a re­tiree I spoke to. She was about to turn 80 and had put a lot of thought and worry into all of this stuff over the years. How stupid it all seemed to her now. “We spend so much time and ef­fort show­ing each other we like each other. It’s wasted,” she said. If she could in­sti­gate a new rule, when­ever peo­ple met, “We’d all just… nod.”

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