How physical greetings evolved – and post-pandemic, how they’re likely to change

To shake, hug, or kiss – twice? For some the greeting has always been a social and professional minefield. And COVID-19 may make the indecision worse.

Published 7 Mar 2022, 12:33 GMT
A mural depicts the famous – and much interpreted – 'almost touch' in Michelangelo's iconic Creation ...

A mural depicts the famous – and much interpreted – 'almost touch' in Michelangelo's iconic Creation of Adam, immortalised on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, in which God gives life to Adam with an outstretched hand. Commentators have speculated that the gap symbolises the gulf between humans and the divine. Certainly amongst the former, physical contact has long been a mainstay of social norms – though that may be changing.

Photograph by Markus Baumeler / Pixabay

In New Zealand they rub noses. Tibetans stick out their tongues. In Zambia they like to squeeze thumbs. On the Polynesian island of Tuvalu, they sniff cheeks. The Maasai tribespeople of Kenya are known to spit on the ground. In certain parts of India, people greet their elders by touching their feet.

Over the course of history, we human beings have developed some strikingly varied greeting methods. During the global pandemic, many of these were scaled back drastically for fear of infection. The more intimate ones may change forever. (Will we ever trust crowds again?)

Clearly, greetings are an essential aspect of human interaction. Andy Scott is author of One Kiss or Two? In Search of the Perfect Greeting. In his book he explains how salutations unify us, maintain social ties, signal acceptance, and “incorporate ourselves into a social setting”.

Many Britons are famously maladroit when it comes to greeting rituals, often unsure whether to shake hands, hug or kiss, and embarrassed as a result. Scott, who works as a conflict adviser at the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, attributes this to a combination of factors: the fallout from our former class hierarchy, a post-imperial malaise, our position in limbo between the United States and Europe, and an uncertainty about our future. “Greetings anxiety,” he calls it.

Changing times

More recently, Brexit has underlined any perceived divide between Britain and continental Europeans, and their assortment of kisses and tactile gestures. Meanwhile, the #MeToo movement has encouraged many to consider the implications of unwelcome social and professional kissing and hugging.

“It all creates even more of a social minefield for us,” Scott tells National Geographic UK. “Right now we’re going through a period of national reflection, and there’s a degree of national self-doubt. There’s a whole confusing set of historical, social, and political forces going on which are reflected in the smallest aspects of human behaviour. Especially greetings because they are so heavily ritualised.”

He points out how we look both west to our American cousins, with their confident hugs and diagonal hand clasps; and east to our European cousins with their double kisses and ciaos. “But, ultimately, we’re still not entirely comfortable with any of it.”

“The handshake is so wonderful as it’s about reciprocity – it’s a mirror image of yourself.” All manner of touch greetings – from the high-five and the humble handshake to infamous pandemic substitute the elbow-bump – occupy the more conservative end of the physical greeting spectrum. 

Photograph by Clockwise from top left: Markus Spiske/Unsplash; Tyler Nix/Unsplash; Austin Kehmeier/Unsplash; Andrew Parsons/No 10 Downing Street

Even so, there are certain benefits to our awkwardness and clumsiness when greeting people. “It certainly allows us to fall back on humour,” Scott adds. “I guess, ironically, through messing up our greetings, and being able to joke about them, we perform one of the fundamental tasks of greeting, which is to relax each other and create bonds.”

Anthropological reasoning

In his book, Scott analyses the various stages of human salutations in detail. Spotting someone from a distance, we initially wave. On coming closer, we might flash our eyebrows, smile and toss our head, before delivering a “hi” or a “hello”.

Close-up is where the rituals become more complicated, depending on where in the world you find yourself. As Scott notes, in the Victorian era, British anthropologist Henry Ling Roth pinpointed over 150 different greeting variants, ranging from clapping hands, pressing thumbs and clicking fingers, to patting stomachs, slapping breast, squeezing nostrils and sniffing cheeks. Fortunately, nowadays, certainly in the Western world, the most common is of course the handshake. (Read: A history of the handshake.)

“Through messing up our greetings, and being able to joke about them, we perform one of the fundamental tasks of greeting, which is to relax each other and create bonds.”

Andy Scott

As with most human behaviour, there are pragmatic roots to the gesture. Waving or extending an empty right hand proves you’re not concealing a weapon; shaking a stranger’s hands would dislodge a knife hidden up a sleeve. Some historians suggest shaking hands later became universally popular thanks to the influence of 17th Century Quakers, who deemed it a more egalitarian alternative to doffing a hat or bowing. Estimates vary, but an oft-quoted figure is that most of us will shake hands around 15,000 times during our lifetime.

“The beautiful thing about the handshake is that it’s so egalitarian,” says Ella Al-Shamahi, an anthropologist, National Geographic Explorer and author of The Handshake: A Gripping History. “If you think about the middle ages in Europe there were so many hierarchical greetings, – because the society was really hierarchical, and sexist. And as democracy is on the rise, and gender equality is on the rise, you see those other greetings like the curtsey and the bowing and the kissing on the hand are falling by the wayside. The only ones that remain are these really egalitarian ones. The handshake is so wonderful as it’s about reciprocity – it’s a mirror image of yourself.”

But even this simple gesture has spawned dozens of modern variations, ranging from the diagonal hand clasp, the fist bump and the high five, to the double handshake or the elbow grasp. Then there are a variety of ‘secret’ handshakes employed by organisations such as the Freemasons. 

Then come the hugs and the kisses, which is where Britons so often find themselves out of their comfort zone. While the all-embracing hug stems from our childhood need for parental warmth and emotion, the swifter patting of the back may originally have been a subtle form of frisking to check guests weren’t hiding weapons behind their backs.

Kissing has evolved from a possible anthropogenic 'partner test' to a sign of greeting or affection, and has backtracked over the centuries due to the fear of disease contagion. 

Photograph by Frank McKenzie / Unsplash

Kissing is more complicated. Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt was an Austrian ethnologist. In his book Indoctrinability, Ideology, and Warfare: Evolutionary Perspectives, he explained how lip-to-lip kissing stems from the practice of premastication, or kiss-feeding, between mother and child.

Andrea Demirjian is author of Kissing: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About One of Life's Sweetest Pleasures. She highlights another theory that prehistoric humans would taste each other’s saliva in order to assess whether a potential mate was healthy or not. She says that, after the Black Death swept across Europe in the 14th Century, mouth-to-mouth kissing sensibly evolved into the less contagious cheek kissing.

Fear of contact

Over the last two years, our own modern-day plague has expunged virtually all physical contact. However, as Scott says, for many British people, social distancing may have been a blessing in disguise. “It was the perfect excuse to neither shake hands nor hug. The pandemic gave us a certainty. For some people it was a relief because the physical intimacy was taken out of greetings, and that’s something [many] struggle with, particularly when confronted with somebody where the relationship is not fully developed, or where you’re not quite sure what the social expectations are; where the thought of going in for a kiss and a hug can fill you with fear.”

All of which begs the question: how will we greet one another once the pandemic has fizzled out completely? Scott says history suggests we will gradually return to our old ways. Indeed, after the plagues of the Middle Ages, and Spanish flu in the early 20th Century, humans gradually learned to kiss and hug again.

However, even before the COVID pandemic, British forms of salutation were evolving, affected by multiple factors ranging from age, social class and geography, to changing social attitudes in light of movements such as #MeToo

But to Al-Shamahi, the pandemic shouldn't cause us to reject contact out-of-hand, so to speak. “I think touch is absolutely essential on greetings, to do with a whole pile of things. Touch generally de-stresses us, there’s some much data on things like oxytocin… but one of the biggest things is about chemosignals. There are ways we communicate with each other that we’re not consciously aware of.”

She cites an experiment by the Weizmann Institute that filmed a group of subjects in a simulated social situation using hidden cameras. Those who greeted with a handshake were more likely to unconsciously sniff their hands afterwards – a more modern way of checking out each other's odour.

“And the handshake is a vector for that,” says Al-Shamahi. “It kind of makes sense when you think of some of the older more anthropological greetings, like sniffing each other. “The thinking is, we don’t interact like that anymore, but we do – it’s just unconscious. And while it probably isn’t as important as it once was, it’s still part of the mix.”

Back in touch? 

Andy Scott points out how younger generations will eventually set new post-COVID norms of greeting. “My gut feeling is that, over time, with close family and close friends there is that instinct to come together with hugs and handshakes. To some extent it’s down to our confidence over whether Coronavirus is eliminated. The handshake seems so universally ingrained, so you’d expect us to revert to it. But there will be uncertainty and awkwardness about it for some time.”

“The handshake always comes back,” says Ella Al-Shamahi. "We’ve had so many examples of epidemics and pandemics [such as Spanish Flu] destroying the handshake; In all cases the handshake came back. So if I was going to bet, I’d be ‘take my money – it’s going to be fine’.

In the meantime, the fact our indecision or awkwardness may revolve around the fairly conventional actions of shaking hands, hugging or kissing is perhaps a blessing. Not all greetings are so conservative: In the 1960s, Australian anthropologist Mervyn Meggitt described a greeting ritual among male members of one Warlpiri-speaking tribe of Australia, which involved placing one’s penis in the hand of one’s host.

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