Let’s (Not) Shake on It

Shaking and kissing are ingrained habits, but not in all cultures.

Posted Mar 19, 2020

A few days ago, Thailand was praised by the World Health Organization as a role model in coping with the coronavirus crisis. Although schools are closed, shops and restaurants are open and people are traveling around as usual, except that travelers will be screened for fever. Thailand has the advantage of greeting with a wai—a greeting where the palms are brought together in front of the face or chest, usually accompanied with a bow. The rule of politeness is also to keep a distance of at least one meter when socializing, and don't touch. This breaks the course of infection.

One of the big questions that has arisen because of the coronavirus spread is how to greet one another, now that we should not shake hands, hug, or kiss. Some are talking negatively about "reducing social contact." But for me, the example of Thailand shows that there are alternatives, and that less physical contact definitely does not mean being less sociable.

Shaking and kissing are ingrained habits

Shaking hands, hugging, and kissing are so ingrained in most euro-centric cultures that even prime ministers who warn people not to do it, immediately do it themselves spontaneously as they leave the meeting. The handshake is said to be a remnant of an old European tradition in which people held each other by the wrists so that one person could not draw his knife and strike the other one.

After a meeting in Poland recently, a gentleman kissed my hand. This, of course, is another old European tradition, and still used in very formal occasions between people of the same status. You may remember in The Godfather, hand-kissing is used to indicate who the Don is. This tradition might have nearly disappeared but lives on in expressions like “Bacio le mani” (I kiss the hands) in Southern Italy.

Hand-kissing is still common in Turkey, Malaysia, and Indonesia in order to show respect to elder people. Some then draw their hand to his own forehead. And, of course, there is the tradition of kissing the signet ring (symbol of authority) which used to indicate formal submission or a pledge of allegiance. This tradition lives on in the Catholic Church, where Catholics will kiss the Pope’s ring.

Don’t touch

Having lived in Southeast Asia for many years, I have very much got used to not touching people at all and have actually learned to appreciate it. In fact, medical professionals will tell you that we carry an average of 3,200 bacteria from 150 different species on our hands. No wonder people used to wear gloves!

The Arabs may shake hands, but the Arabic Salaam (peace) refers to placing the right palm on the heart, before and after. South Asian Muslims have the Adab gesture, which is bending forward with the fingertips close to the forehead.

In many other cultures, people never touch at all when they greet someone. The traditional Chinese greeting is putting your right fist in the palm of your left hand and shake it back and forth two or three times.

There is bowing from the waist, the Japanese way, or kowtowing, kneeling with the brow to the ground. Prostration on the floor is illustrated in Thailand, where anybody approaching the king has to crawl forward and backward.

Just as for the handshake, there is always an etiquette to know—which is something I always discuss with my CEMS students. The basic rule is showing respect. The bow is lower and the joined hands are higher when we meet someone senior in age or position.

Cleanliness as a way of life

Importantly, particularly in Asia, bathing and washing—in fact, general cleanliness—is also much more a part of daily activities. I have become used to finding people brushing their teeth after every meal and washing their face and hands when coming in from the street. Clean hands, clean bodies, and clean clothes out of respect for oneself and for the others.

Maybe we can learn from Asian traditions to be more hygienic whilst being friendly, and adopt the namaste or the wai as the usual greeting? Because of coronavirus, we might even start to get rid of the unhygienic habit of shaking hands.

After all, not touching does not have to mean reducing social contact or being unfriendly.