Two or three times a week, I leave my young son with a childminder before taking my daughter to nursery. It used to be that, when first meeting the minder or the teacher who was about to take charge of them for the day, I’d grip their upper arm in greeting – a gesture by which I think I meant “Hello” and “Thank you”, as well as something like: “Please don’t let anything happen to them in the foam zone or during scissors time.” A handshake felt too formal in the circumstances, a wave too cold, an embrace too much. There aren’t any cheat sheets or obvious etiquette guides to steer our behaviour in such moments, though, so, like a lot of people, I panicked, winged it, and evolved a near-random habit of greeting that after a while I came to queasily trust was acceptable. Actually, I was feeling pretty confident about that arm squeeze, until I mentioned it to friends.
“You do what?” They were incredulous. “You grip the teacher where?”
“It’s the forearm,” someone said. “You can only put your hand on the forearm in a relationship like this.”
“You can squeeze,” someone said, “lightly.”
Someone else said: “Why are you touching them at all? Unless these teachers are, like, your close friends? Or your siblings?”
Brits are all over the place when it comes to our methods of physical introduction: inconsistent, contrarian, unsatisfiable. The handshake, a staple to Person A, can seem like barbarian overreach to Person B. Getting a new job might mean trading a huggy workplace for one that’s frostily hands-free, or vice versa, without this switch in protocol being properly explained till you’re there, squeezed under a boss’s armpit, or mutely flicking up eyebrows at some distant colleagues wearing headphones.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that we’re puzzled, and puzzling, when it comes to this stuff, given our history. Fiercely codified Edwardian mores were force-fed through two wars, and what jumble of habits remained after that pushed on through postwar immigration, the eroding of an overripe class system, waves of sexual and political change, shifting inclinations to imitate Europeans and Americans, the warping effects of communication by computer and text message, as well as those recent pause-for-thought moments brought about by the #MeToo campaign. Not to mention the endless seesawing shifts in fashion that brought in and out of use the customised handshake, stratagems for clutching, the peace sign, air-kissing. What a mess. What a minefield.
After my fright with the upper-arm squeeze, I wondered what else I was doing differently from other people. So over a few weeks I surveyed more than 50 people on the subject, all British or Britain-based but of different ages, backgrounds, sexualities, regions, cultures and employment. The youngest respondent was 19, the oldest 79. Some people had been quietly stewing on these things for years, and others had never properly analysed their actions before. I asked about habits and uncertainties, where people were inconsistent and where they wished for greater clarity, and what suggestions they had to help us normalise this shambles.
I heard many intriguing admissions, offered on the condition of anonymity, for instance about the lifelong best friends who never touched in greeting (“We bow our heads slightly”) or the people who’d never so much as hugged their fathers (“I’m not sure his body knows how to contort itself into a hugging position”). People talked me through Ghanaian hand-slaps (“You do it with enthusiasm and gusto, and then click the other person’s fingers”) and Turkish hand-kisses (“You kiss the back of an elder’s hand and place it on your forehead briefly”).
Only on one subject was there broad agreement: mums. Mums get a hug and a kiss in greeting; for most people this was the one uncomplicated, unhesitating transaction that came naturally.
Who’s kissing who: how we greet now
‘He gets an awkward hug’: dads
A number of those I interviewed described an everyday clumsiness around their siblings (“My brothers get a nod and an ‘All right’, unless it’s Eid or a funeral or one of us is leaving on a massive trip”) but this was nothing like the pickle people got into around their fathers. A male market trader told me that he and his dad had settled on “three to four kisses per year” – their difficulty was knowing if and when an occasion was exceptional enough to use them. A schoolboy was unbothered (“I don’t use any means of physical contact to greet my father”) but among older men a note of yearning was more common if they did not feel able to kiss or embrace their dads: “I sort of shake hands with him, but then hold the hand, briefly.”
A TV producer said: “I’ll usually greet my dad with a wave and a nod. He’s always been a big disciplinarian, typically African and proud, and living in England for over 35 years hasn’t changed that.” Among those who were comfortable kissing their fathers, there were other complications. “My dad gets an awkward hug and he kisses my head,” said a female respondent. A standup comedian said she’d had to come to terms with funny glances coming her way whenever she gave her dad “a quick peck on the lips. It does seem odd to other people, but we’ve always done it and it’s never led to incest.”
I was most struck by the response from a security guard, who said that before his father died they used to greet each other with the same routine: firm handshake, followed by sloppy double kiss. It was as if the handshake, like some formal red tape that had to be taken care of, allowed them into a looser intimacy.
‘It’s chaos. I’ve kissed ears’: colleagues
A teacher was unabashed: hugs are in. “Teaching is like that: at the end of the week, it’s hugs for close colleagues.” Those who worked in offices were more likely to balk at contact. “I like a wave and a ‘Hey’,” said a solicitor, which seemed the view of the majority. In offices where the no-contact greeting is standard, the rules seem to get compromised after any sort of holiday or break from the daily routine. “It’s chaos. I’ve kissed ears, shaken an extended fist, had my handshake crushed against a groin as they’ve hugged me.”
People note the inconsistencies brought about by after-work drinks or seasonal parties – particularly saying goodbye at the end. The boss at a management consultancy said: “I often take a faux phone call, to escape the milling.” Quite a few women made the same complaint: why should they be expected to follow up a handshake with a kiss, only because they were women? A film-maker said: “Posh men do this – they pull you in by the hand, and once they instigate it, it’s very hard to get out of.” One recent improvement, though: “I have definitely had my knee patted a lot less since the #MeToo movement.” The solicitor added: “I would far prefer it if it was customary for women as well as men to do just handshakes; it would put women on the same footing from the get-go.”
‘High five, without fail’: other people’s children
People spoke of improvising their own special technique for greeting children, anything from fond to frosty, but there was no consensus. “Head pat… Hair ruffle… Enthusiastic wave… A curt nod and a please-move-on-now look… I kneel down to their level and ask if they are all right… High five, without fail, normally making them miss the first time… Ironic handshake… High five and a lot of noise… I sort of lean into their faces and boom ‘Hello’ in what’s probably quite a distressing way.”
Bending to a child’s level felt important to people. But a father of three smartly pointed out: “They don’t care either way.”
‘Long, rocking bear-hugs’: friends
A 19-year-old told me that “physical contact among people my age is optional. We settle for a simple ‘Hi’ or ‘Hello’, unless you haven’t seen each other in a while, are best friends or in a romantic relationship.” Most older respondents stated a fondness for personalised greetings. “If I really like someone, I give their back a rub while I hug, like they’re a good horse. For those I’m closest to, I’ll pause after the initial hug and then squeeze.”
Stress levels began to rise, people said, when it came to managing these customised hellos all at once. Respondents spoke about circling living rooms or pubs, trying to remember their levels of intimacy with friends on the fly. “One- or two-arm hug? Arm clutches? Or no arm clutches?” A few told stories about awkwardly upgrading their greetings package so that it matched that of the cherished person present – and suddenly there they were in long, rocking bear-hugs with near strangers. Friends’ partners, apparently, present special difficulties. “Strangely dodgy territory,” one respondent said, matching the feelings of about a quarter of those I interviewed. People reported that greetings might come flavoured with frisson (“Sometimes one or other of you goes for the extra kiss and it produces that moment, where you almost kiss on the lips”) or something like stage fright (“There’s a sort of hallway freeze”). A Muslim woman said: “I’m not supposed to have that much physical contact with dudes and I used to find it very weird to get kissed on the cheek by my ex-husband’s mates.” A mother of two said: “My best friend’s husband makes it clear he doesn’t want to be kissed. He sticks out his cheek and says a loud air-kissing ‘Mwah’ which is a rigmarole we go through about once a fortnight.”
Hug me, squeeze me: the techniques
Apart from a sweet, softly spoken poetry academic, who felt that an absolute bone-crusher of a handshake “should be taught in schools”, the men I interviewed mostly hated having their fingers vice-squashed in greeting. “Deeply twatty,” said a chief executive from North Yorkshire. A charity worker agreed: “It’s so pathetic and yet it feels inappropriate to call them out on it in public.” A van driver admitted: “I was once advised to firm up my handshake. Some people associate it with success and confidence. I associate it with fear.”
There was a surprising amount of sympathy for the strong handshake among female respondents. A student from Manchester said: “I quite like it, it feels important”, and a TV producer said: “I like them. But you need to engage with your eyes as well or don’t bother.” Absolutely nobody came out in defence of the alternative. “Don’t slide your hand towards me like a limp fish,” said the female ad exec. “Commit.”
There was a high degree of paranoia when it came to the number of kisses: a question to which the answers displayed more class- and geography-based conflict than anywhere else.
A police officer said: “Single, always the single kiss”, while a screenwriter gently suggested otherwise: “Maybe two if they initiate.” An architect approached the matter in terms of aesthetics: “There’s got to be something about being symmetrical, right?” An entrepreneur who’d trial-and-errored his way through the numbers had concluded that “the single is creepy, the triple absurd”. (A charity worker disagreed. “I love the novelty value of a triple.”) An academic noted with approval the method of a colleague “who says, as she goes in, ‘I take three’”, while an editor just sounded tired: “I’m not a fan of the kiss on the cheek as a greeting full stop. It’s a posh-white-people thing.” Actually, a lot of people said something like this. A post office worker stated: “Kissing people is definitely a posh thing.” A medical researcher confessed: “I’m northern, this never comes up, apart from when I’m down south, and then I just do as instructed.”
A woman in her 30s had had enough. “Just the one. And say clearly, ‘I just do the one.’”
What to take from all this? For a while, after I’d listened to and digested all these anxieties and opinions, my methods of introduction became a little wild – erratic. Over a week of nursery drop-offs, I cycled through some alternative greeting methods, trialling one person’s suggestion of “a general wave” and then another, “the footballers’ handclutch”. Neither felt right. I drifted back to the arm squeeze: forearms only, to be safe.
In other parts of life I tried to take on the more sensible-sounding advice: bending down to address children; medium-squeezing offered hands; double-kissing posh southerners and trying to read prompts from everyone else, before kissing them. Actually, wiser respondents had advised something like this in all scenarios. Make eye contact and smile as you greet people; at that point, if in doubt, be led by them.
More than anything, I kept thinking about a retiree I spoke to. She was about to turn 80 and had put a lot of thought and worry into all of this stuff over the years. How stupid it all seemed to her now. “We spend so much time and effort showing each other we like each other. It’s wasted,” she said. If she could instigate a new rule, whenever people met, “We’d all just… nod.”
• Commenting on this piece? If you would like your comment to be considered for inclusion on Weekend magazine’s letters page in print, please email email@example.com, including your name and address (not for publication).