Greetings are really very interesting, particularly the physical aspect. I’ve been thinking lately that I’d love to do a little ethnographic study on how we greet one another in Ireland (finally making use of that one year of anthropology that I took). We all know that’ll never happen though, so I’ll just blurt out some poorly-thought-through nonsense here instead.
I think that how we greet someone has the potential to make a statement about:
(a) How we feel about ourselves;
(b) How we feel about the person we are greeting;
(c) Our intentions toward the person we are greeting;
(d) Probably lots of other things that I have neglected to notice and include.
I’m going to try to batter out my thoughts by using the headings I’ve just put in place, in an attempt to help them take shape. I should add as a disclaimer that I can only use myself as an example. You might do the same things as me, with totally different motivations, or you might even do the very opposite, but with very similar motivations.
(a) What Our Greetings Say About How We Feel About Ourselves:
The obvious thing that comes to mind in this case is the handshake. I always offer a very firm handshake, and find that I am usually (although not always) the first person in the pair to extend the hand. I do this for four reasons.
Firstly, I believe that touching another person is an important way to begin any kind of relationship with them, and the handshake, although a little formal, can offer warmth without crossing any personal boundaries. I’ve only ever met one person who refused to shake my hand, stating at the time that he “doesn’t do that” and I later heard that he ended up stabbing someone and consequently went to prison. (Just saying.)
I also offer my hand because I am confident in my social abilities and know that I am a good conversation partner, most of the time, and recognise that handshakes are a precursor to conversations (conversations with strangers being something that a huge number of people find difficult). I also usually couple a handshake with a smile, which I often find is returned, but I find I am rarely greeted with a smile first from the other person. I do think this is a confidence rather than temperamental issue, because those of you who know me know I’m not exactly chirpy in temperament.
Thirdly, I extend my hand because I feel that a firm handshake, while looking someone in the eye, is quite simply a good way of acknowledging our meeting – an acknowledgement both of myself and of the other person in the encounter. An astonishing number of people offer a limp hand in handshakes, and a large proportion of the dead-fish-shakes are from women (sorry women, but it’s true). This reminds me from my days in anthropology of the huge range of greetings that people in Papua New Guinea have for one another…a favourite, which the husband unit was talking about recently, is where one friend, facing another, will say, “Are you here?” and the other will reply, “Yes, I am here.” I like that a lot.
Fourthly, and this is certainly a subconscious rather than conscious motivator for shaking hands, is that shaking someone’s hand is a powerful symbol of peace between two people. When one person refuses to shake another person’s hand, it is an aggressive gesture symbolising broken relationship. It’s wonderful to be able to start and indeed continue relationships with the goodwill of continued peace between you, but that’s kind of leaking into part (c) of this discussion.
And so with hugs. When I lean towards someone to put my arms around their body, it says that I am confident that they will return the embrace. When an embrace is awkward, it is often because one party was not expecting the embrace and therefore was not ready to return it. The embracer in turn can feel awkward as their expectations of an embrace were not met. Alternatively, a hug can be awkward if one party senses that the other is feigning affection, and they don’t wish to join in. I get that. I hate hugs from people I don’t like and try to avoid them (the hugs, that is) at all costs.
(b) What Our Greetings Say About How We Feel About the Person We Greet:
I’m a hugger, generally speaking. Not with everyone, mind, and not in all contexts. I’m a kisser, too. The more affection I feel towards you, which is often linked to how long I have known you, the more likely you are to get a big kiss and a warm embrace when I meet you. I feel a lot of love for my friends and to me it is a natural way of expressing that love. I know that this phsyicality does not come naturally to all people, even many very loving people, and I don’t think there is any problem with that. There is no standard for expressing love and affection, and sometimes a tender word from a friend of typically few words can be worth more than a hundred floppy-armed hugs from someone else.
I work in a prison where there are a lot of boundaries around physical touch, and for many reasons. Many of the men are in prison because they have no boundaries at all. Sometimes I want to hug a man, or hold his hand, but I don’t. Sometimes however they want to hug me, or hold my hand, and that is ok with me. I can imagine scenarios where it wouldn’t be ok, but these have not yet arisen. All in good time. ;) In the prison, the handshakes, smiles and eye-contact are very important. Prisoners do not touch one another much, and the prison guards do not touch the prisoners at all.This says something both about how the prisoners feel about themselves and about each other, and about how the guards feel about the prisoners. I want my handshakes to communicate that I consider them important and important enough to have a relationship with, which I hope will be a peaceful and affectionate one. Even the nature of the handshake can change. Sometimes it is a jolly jovial shake; sometimes it is a dismal and sad affair where the prisoner gazes at their feet; at other times it is a clasping of hands with a locked gaze and intense words. A lot can be communicated in a greeting.
(c) What Our Greetings Say About Our Intentions Towards the Person We Greet:
I have touched on this one already with the symbolic meaning of the handshake and the importance of eye-contact and/or smiling, but I will try to explain what I mean here with two examples.
A few days ago, a young man came to our home to stay for a month. His name is Declan. He’s here to do an internship with our church. I have only really met Declan on one previous occasion, where I accused him of being a fundamentalist (which was untrue, and which he took rather well). I should add that Declan claims that we had met previously in passing but I can’t recall it.
When Declan arrived laden down with luggage and damp from the rain, he had been travelling all day. Although I barely knew him, and am in fact only getting to know him bit by bit now, I greeted him with a big hug (sorry if that was surprising, Declan). I don’t usually greet people I barely know with hugs, but I did so because I wanted Declan to know that he was warmly welcomed into our home for the month. I guess the message was to let him know that while here, he would be part of the family.
A second example: a number of years ago, a young woman named Sharon moved to my town. I had known she was coming for some time, as we had a mutual friend called Lorraine. Lorraine was full of anticipation about the lovely Sharon’s arrival – she would be working locally and living with Lorraine. I had heard a lot of wonderful things about her and was finding myself excited to meet her too. On the morning when we eventually met, we had a huge spontaneous embrace and lots of laughing. Our greeting was symbolic of the fact that we had both decided to be friends with each other, despite never having spoken before. It was a lovely moment, and we did become friends.
(d) Everything else:
I think all this talk of shaking hands, hugging and kissing is probably going to lead to a blog post on boundaries at some stage… :) This post probably reveals something about me that I shouldn’t go around saying too much: I like touching people. Touch communicates a lot. I don’t mean to suggest that if you find touching people other than those to whom you are very, very close, awkward, that there is some deficiency in this. I am only sharing my own experiences and thoughts and recognise that everyone is different, and many other assorted cliches. I haven’t even glanced over verbal greetings here, which are a different and very interesting beast also.
Any thoughts, o wise ones? If I’ve offended you, try not to get too touchy with me…oh what the hell. Let’s all just make out.