Today and for many months now, Covid-19 has affected most countries in the world. Social distancing has become the norm for most and socialising is now a difficult task. But because of the different cultures, some countries have more to change in their greeting habits than others.
Let’s start with the case of America. Americans usually just say "hi" with a smile, or sometimes they will shake hands on formal occasions. They can also give a hug to close members of family and close friends, or even fist bump, a 21st century trend that stemmed out of the 1940s with motorcycle gangs. Social distancing restrictions affect mainly people emotionally close to each other. Therefore, culturally, in America, stopping all contacts with colleagues or the occasional friends should not be the biggest challenge.
In other countries saying hello comes with much more contact, for example kissing on the cheeks. This is a well known way of saying hello in France mainly, but also in Spain, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland or Russia. In the Middle East as well the custom is to shake hands and kiss on the cheeks 2 to 3 times with the same gender.
We can also mention Malaysia, a multicultural country with physical greetings. They will delicately touch their companion’s hands with both of their hands, and pull them back towards the heart.
The young Filipinos greet their elderly with a bow, then take a hand, and touch the knuckles of the elderly on their forehead to show respect. It is a way to say “Kamusta” (hello). This form of greeting is known as Mano.
As beautiful as these cultural greetings are, and there could be many more to mention, they are sadly risky in our Covid-19 world and so should really be temporarily stopped.
In other countries, greeting habits can remain unchanged and even adopted by others.
Indeed, saying hello does not always mean having physical contact with others. In many countries of Asia, the custom is to bend forward to say hello as it shows respect towards the person in front of you. These habits can have variables. In India, for instance, a common custom of greeting is to bend down and touch the other person’s feet. In China some people bend forward after kneeling down on the floor, with their forehead on the ground. This custom is dying out, but many still do this out of respect to the elders.
As we can see, the restrictions on social distancing does not affect everyone on the same scale. Some cultures have to do more efforts to limit any contagion.
Changing a habit of greeting can be challenging as we get so used to it. For instance, my sister and I are British and French, she lives in England and I live in France. Over the phone, she was shocked when I told her that some French people, even after two months of quarantine, were still kissing on the cheeks when meeting up.
Obviously It is not good to do so when we see how fast the disease is spreading. But we must realize how much 'la bise' (kissing on the cheeks) is anchored in the French culture and hard to stop even when the reason is to prevent others from getting ill.
'La bise' became a habit of saying "hello" to family members or close friends during the Renaissance period. This is the same period when it nearly vanished because of recurrent pandemics such as the black plague.
During the 19th century it became a habit once again but more between women. Then came the tradition of men and women also kissing on the cheeks. And now, quite recently, men are also kissing each other for greeting.
Then there are the codes. Because yes, kissing is a tradition and a habit but it is not the same for everyone, even in the same country. Kissing in France is not that easy. Depending on where you come from in France the number of kisses can change. For instance, if you come from the South West of France, traditionally you kiss twice, but if you come from the Languedoc Roussillon in the South it’s three or in the Pays de la Loire in Centre West it’s four times! But which cheek do you start kissing is yet another matter. To make it simple, if you are in the Northern part of France you usually start kissing the left cheek and then the right one, but in the South it is the opposite.
Even if this culture of 'la bise' gives a very Frenchy and romantic look to foreigners it is not to every French’s taste. Indeed, not every French person likes doing 'la bise' and some actually hate it. But it can be perceived as very impolite to approach someone without kissing when saying hello. That’s why, today, some people still do it. They are afraid to offend the person.
But we may ask each other what is worst: looking impolite or putting someone in danger?
Traditions of saying hello with a physical approach may come to an end for several months and maybe years. Some people will see this as an opportunity of saying goodbye to conservative traditions kept out of politeness, while others will see it as a part of their tradition and identity sadly disappearing.
Some scientists and journalists, such as Jasmin Fox-Skelly, advocate that this pandemic is just the beginning of a series of others due to "long-dormant bacteria and viruses, trapped in ice and permafrost for centuries". If that becomes a reality and masks and social distancing become recurring preoccupations, we can imagine that shaking hands, fist bumping, hugging, kissing on the forehead and 'la bise' will become lost traditions and the elbow check will be the new "hey what’s up?".