The kisses, handshakes, and hugs that make up our social interactions also accelerate the spread of infections and disease. How are people adapting their greetings after COVID-19?
Early in March, a Twitter video of two masked men in China tapping their feet together went viral. The video offered a solution to a pressing global issue – how do we adapt greetings during the COVID-19 pandemic?
What do greetings and their messaging stand for
Mary M. Mitchell, author and expert on greetings etiquette, explains greetings as “signals that each individual respects the other and bears no arms. They are signals of peace and diplomacy. And with closer relationships, greetings are signs of affection and welcome.”
Greetings are integral to many cultures, and have often been passed down through centuries of tradition. But with the World Health Organisation (WHO) advising to keep “at least one meter away from others”, the COVID-19 pandemic has rendered both intimate and formal greetings hazardous to public health safety.
Greetings are closely tied with cultural tradition around the world
A 2015 study found that British participants were significantly less comfortable with physical contact than those from Finland, France, Italy and Russia.
In the Mediterranean kissing is a part of daily life, frequently used to greet family, friends, and even strangers.
In France, the Health Minister has explicitly advised against “la bise” (the kiss) as part of social distancing guidelines.
“Spain has a warm culture. We can’t help to kiss, touch and hug each other,” says Cristina Carrasco, Reset staff writer.
“Now, you walk down the street and see that kisses have been replaced by people bumping their elbows or feet. It is still going to be hard to change a habit that’s so ingrained in our culture, but we are slowly adapting, and you can see that the warmth is still there even if we can’t touch each other.”Cristina Carrasco
“In Italy, we also usually greet each other with kisses on both cheeks,” says Reset art director Gaia Lamperti.
“Body contact is very important and shows you care about somebody. It is entirely part of our culture, so it is taking out something very important by telling us not to touch each other.”Gaia Lamperti
And touching isn’t just significant in Europe, “the Hongi is a sacred form of greeting in New Zealand,” says staff writer Lizzy de Jonge on the indigenous Māori tradition of pressing noses and foreheads against each other.
“This form of greeting is incredibly important for Māori people and it will be really sad to see it affected.”Lizzy de Jonge
SARS saw handshakes retired once before
In 2002, the SARS – or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome – coronavirus (SARS-CoV) epidemic broke out in China, reaching Hong Kong in early 2003.
“Generally, people wanted to avoid face to face conversation during SARS,” says Angel Wong, a Research Fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, “we didn’t do handshakes and tended to nod when we saw each other on the street.”
Seventeen years later, the handshake has been made redundant once again and alternative greetings are being experimented with all over the world.
The foot tap went on to be nicknamed the “Wuhan shake”; New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Arden made headlines for swapping handshakes for elbow bumps, and Paris Fashion Week in February saw influencers greeting each other by squeezing one another’s biceps.
Wong warns it wasn’t until SARS was completely eradicated that more intimate greetings were resumed in Hong Kong. “I think the changes in greeting will last until COVID-19 is eradicated, or we have any vaccine or drug to control and treat the infection,” she says.
How will we greet one another in the future?
After three decades as a greetings expert Mitchell agrees the COVID-19 pandemic could see long term changes to the way we say hello and goodbye. “I think we are going to see tremendous changes to greeting culture,” she says, “but there are ways to be more familiar and kinder without touching.”
In India, for example, “a widely accepted salutation is that of folding hands and saying ‘namaste’,” says our editor Saumya Kalia.
“Greetings weren’t a large-scale pandemic casualty in India as it doesn’t endorse a lot of touching in its cultural paradigm.”Saumya Kalia
Other socially distanced approved greetings include the Thai wai – a gentle bow of the head with the hands pressed in prayer, rooted in the influences of Buddhism and Hinduism on Thai culture; the Tibetan greeting of sticking out your tongue; or the simple Zimbabwean clap.
Only time will tell whether our cultural habits snap back into place, or whether, like Mitchell predicts, there’ll be a shift in greeting culture for fear of another pandemic.
But for now, Mitchell says, “I find myself crossing my hands over my heart, making eye contact and giving a tiny bow to let the other person know that I’m honouring them and that I am respecting them enough not to potentially infect them.”