When I was growing up, shaking hands seemed like a formal, old-fashioned custom to me, one I mostly saw in old movies. In real life it was reserved for introductions and making bets, rarely used by children or teenagers – until I moved to Germany during college for a junior year abroad. There a handshake was the customary greeting, and to my surprise I came to embrace it (pun intended).
Does this speak to a prudishness in me that I didn’t realize was there? No, I’m not a prude, but I do appreciate clear rules, and I liked not having to worry about what was appropriate. Are we familiar enough for a hug or a kiss? In Germany you didn’t have to wonder: the handshake was always right. It covered a broad spectrum of relationships from newly introduced strangers to good friends, including the gray area of acquaintances one might not feel comfortable hugging — polite and unobtrusive yet expressing friendly openness.
Several years later I ended up in the Netherlands as an expat. While my knowledge of German helped me pick up Dutch, I had a new greeting etiquette to learn. Here, acquaintances quickly progressed from handshakes to air kisses, which I’d never encountered in real life and associated with superficial city socialites. I mastered the art about as well as I did speaking Dutch, which is to say, with an American accent. At first it felt awkward, but gradually I became comfortable with the three air kisses, left right left, the soft brush of cheeks. It made me feel sophisticated and continental. Even if I sometimes fell prey when kissing someone who was also wearing glasses to the nose-jarring bump of our eyeglass frames, at least I learned the Dutch phrase for this incident which assured me it wasn’t uncommon: brillen kussje, little kiss of the glasses.
I love the complement of ways our different cultures developed to express affection and connect through touch – from embracing to air kissing, from the handshake to its casual, hipper cousins the high five and fist bump. But what do we do now? In the same way that moving overseas dropped me into a dance of unfamiliar customs, Covid landed the whole world in a brand-new culture where none of us know the rules. We can’t learn by watching and doing the way I did in Germany and the Netherlands; we have to make it up as we go along. But just as we learned early in the pandemic to recognize the smile behind a mask from the crinkle in a person’s eyes, we are figuring this out too.
Having grown up in a culture of hugging, I was surprised during my year in Germany by how much warmth and affection a clasping of hands could convey, so I hope Dr. Fauci was wrong when he famously suggested in April 2020 that Americans should never shake hands again. Sure, the way we make eye contact and our tone of voice when we say hello can reveal a lot of emotion, but I don’t think that’s enough for most of us in the long run. Human beings are mammals. We evolved to be in physical contact. As I emerged newly vaccinated from pandemic isolation, I quickly learned to ask friends when we met for the first time, “Are you hugging?” (Mostly the answer was yes.) Maybe our post-Covid etiquette will involve a more complicated ritual of asking How are you? and then waiting for a real answer. As much as I like a clear set of rules I don’t have to think about, sensitivity and mindfulness in the way we say hello is not a bad thing.