Saying 'hi' is harder in a diverse society

Handshakes, hugs, and other forms of social contact mean different things to different cultures: Not every averted glance is an evasion, not every ungripped hand is a snub.

It's a new year. Time to stick out your hand and say hi.

A firm handshake is supposed to say a lot. But what, and in what language?

Does firm mean sincere? A steel-clamp grip can seem intimidating. Or it may be the just-can’t-help-it reflex of a big lunk’s meaty paw.

Eye contact is similarly problematic. In the Old West, a steady look was supposed to indicate you were brave and true. Roy Rogers coupled an unblinking gaze with a determined squint. Thousands of young fans imitated him. Our recent Old West-loving president, George W. Bush, who would have watched Roy and Dale and Trigger as a boy, once said that he had looked into Vladimir Putin’s eyes and seen his soul.

He might have. Or he might just have encountered the confident baby blues of a former KGB officer. A little eye fluttering, after all, can be reassuring, even charming – although some self-styled analysts say too much blinking can indicate lying.

Or embarrassment. Or dry eyes.

The point is that how we meet and greet and what it all means has always been problematic. The first handshake was extended by one Roman to another to show that he wasn’t holding a dagger. That’s better than the alternative but not exactly warm and fuzzy. Social kisses and pats on the back are supposed to show more than casual but less than intimate acquaintance. Proceed with caution. There’s a microscopic tripwire when engaging in these greetings. Release too soon, and you seem like a cold fish. Peck too directly and you’ll get a well-deserved slap.

I was raised in a warm but not necessarily huggy family. I recall admiring how my Latino pals did the manly abrazo with folks they knew. It seemed friendly and full-bodied. Soon my brothers and I were doing it all the time. Then not to do it seemed like a subtle insult.

From the 1960s onward, hugs were everywhere, along with a variety of cool new handshakes and of course the oh-so-Euro social kiss. It was a touchy-feely time. But mores rise and fall.

From my perspective, the social kiss peaked in 1980. I was in a press pool at the White House when Jimmy Carter greeted the “miracle on ice” US hockey team that had defeated the Russians in the winter Olympics that year. Carter was known for his smile and friendly manner. He instinctively kissed people. While that was in tune with the times, I remember thinking it also was a little wrong in this case. I mean, hockey and kissing? That’s like sledgehammers and marshmallows.

Hugging jumped the shark in my experience a few years later. My wife and I were traveling in New England and found a country inn late one night. The next morning we discovered we had checked into an establishment where every room was jammed with teddy bears. They were on chairs, in beds, on windowsills. At breakfast, we met the proprietor, a nice enough gent who insisted on hugging everyone who walked in the door. It had something to do with hugging being better than fighting. But I wasn’t thinking about fighting. All I wanted were pancakes.

Now combine ever-changing and hard-to-read customs with our increasingly cosmopolitan modern world. A woman wearing a head scarf might decline a handshake. That shouldn’t be taken as a rebuff, even if you are an inveterate glad-hander. Vastly different cultures are living side by side today, not always easily but no longer with the expectation of everyone having the same interpersonal norms. It is easy to goof in social settings. You don’t want to be standoffish, but you need to respect boundaries. An extended hand might be left ungrasped because of a belief system. Or a worry about hygiene.

Everyone is awkward these days. By the way, a sure sign of awkwardness is averted eyes.

Or perhaps that’s shyness.

Or there’s spinach in your teeth.

John Yemma is the editor of 
The Christian Science Monitor.

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