A simple handshake between businessmen. A courteous bow in Japan. Rub your nose affectionately with one another among Inuits. Press your forehead to a fellow Maori’s. Put your palms together in a prayer-like gesture and bow your head in Thailand. And smile. Always equip yourself with a smile.
Why then, if the rest of the world always knows exactly what to do when they greet people do the English flounder and grimace when they meet someone new and continue to do so until one of the new acquaintances ventures to add the other as a friend on Facebook and they feel this newfound intimacy warrants a hug or a kiss?
Man on man encounters are usually tolerated without any exterior display of awkwardness. They thrust their heads back, remind themselves they need to firmly establish their territory by the mere touch of their fingertips, stare into the very depths of the other person’s eyeballs and extend their palms. They squeeze tight enough to let their opponent know they are capable of seriously injuring them should the need arise, while trying to inject an inkling of trust into the exchange. The perfect image of common courtesy.
But what then, when a man meets a woman for the first time? Shake her hand? Too formal. A kiss on the cheek? Depends how fit she is, most will say. Too asymmetrical, they might conclude. A kiss on each cheek? Too forthcoming, too French. And there is always the mortifying possibility of unexpected midflight lip-on-lip as you go from left to right, or right to left, or left to left and back. Hug her? Too pally. A derivation of the caveman territory demonstration gesture, she might think. A cowardly wave? Safe, I suppose. But do you opt for the regal side-to-side movement or the tickle motion? The former I hope. Whip out the ‘tickle’ and you’ve already smashed any chances you might have had to smithereens.
You would have thought that if men can follow a more or less seamless routine, without their heads exploding with the conflicting thoughts of the moral implications of their chosen greeting, that women would be able to do the same. They should be able to stare each other down and establish their territory with a mere gesture, within three seconds of catching sight of their opponent. How ironic that the more organised and practical sex should choose not to imitate the handshake routine, the failsafe method successfully employed by men. A kiss on each cheek then? Women always know that the volume of the mwah sound on each side is always indirectly proportional to the sincerity of your greeting, but not making one at all is too sexual. Solution? Revert to Plan B: Look like a tit, execute the cowardly wave.
With all this neurotic panic racing round our heads, you would have thought we could just pick one and execute it with the confidence of a prehistorically established greeting. Instead, we often feel the need just to stand there with our hands firmly clasped to our sides to avoid the risk of seeming too forward, too pushy, too camp. It’s as awkward as the first date. Please make the first move, your mind is screaming, as you make your excuses to leave. Perhaps we should just tell our dates our desired goodbye procedure. It would save romantic awkwardness in the long run.
And if we Brits can’t get it right, how on earth do we cope when we go abroad? Not too well, judging by the slowly articulated ‘Plate of chips’ orders you hear barked out in warmer climes. The kind of phrase that makes you want to feign a French or even German accent for the rest of your holiday. But if that at least gets the message across without the need to translate into any unfamiliar foreign tongue, the silent world of transnational greetings brings things to a whole new level.
As a rather dippy and deeply Westernised Egyptian friend explained to me once, ‘In Egypt, don’t touch a member of the opposite sex unless he is your father or brother, and even then, tread with caution.’ Having met a rather dashing Egyptian boy on the Egyptian beach (think bikinis, jet skis, hedonism) she opted for the kiss on each cheek when they went to say goodbye. Her rather conventional family, spying this, and already outraged that she was talking to a male stranger, ignored her for the rest of the week. She spent the remainder of her holiday trying in vain to explain the role of ‘the French’ in England. And her partner in crime disappeared off into the ether.
Such a simple notion, so many dilemmas. For the first time in my life, I find myself praising the consequences of globalisation. ‘Allô?’ asks the Frenchman when he picks up the phone. ‘Hello Kaa’, purrs the Thai woman as she picks up her Samsung. ‘Haelo!’ enthuse the Bengalis as their polyphonic ring tones chime out into Calcutta’s hectic cacophony. At least we can all telephonically greet someone with relative ease, without having to worry about the appropriate ratio of eye contact to tactility and what not.
But we still haven’t tackled the face to face. Despite almost 2000 years of civilisation, we still haven’t really come up with a solution. Surely someone will soon recognise it as an important priority and write a handbook which we can refer to every time we set out to network. But by then we’ll probably all have telephones for faces anyway.