It’s holiday season, which means more friends and family and greetings, in person or otherwise, than usual. Add to that a few weddings receptions and you can get downright sore from all the hugging and hand-wrenching. Not to mention confused by the vast array of possibilities for saying hello or goodbye or Merry Christmas or Happy New Year to someone. It’s enough to make even the most seasoned anthropologist dizzy.
Within your particular culture, the rituals aren’t all that baffling, I suppose, even if, once you stop to count them, they are surprisingly numerous. In my little American Mormon Male corner of the world, it’s plenty of hand-shaking, frequent but selective hugging, and virtually no cheek-kissing. (And I’m not saying any of this is good or bad, merely offering my decidedly subjective observation.) You shake hands with new acquaintances of both genders, and with pretty good male friends. With really good male friends, there’s usually no formality, though a few might insist on shaking hands still. With family, there’s always a hug, for both genders. At a wedding reception or some meaningful event, good male friends and male relatives give a big hug with a loud double or triple pat on the back (no lingering) to lend the potentially awkward embrace a manly edge or something. Call it Touch and Release hugging. It reminds me of noble rituals in medieval France, which might include a kiss on the mouth to seal an agreement, but also a heavy fist, the accolade, across the back of a new knight’s neck, as if to neutralize more intimate gestures. At the last reception, I grew so weary of manly pats that when it was time to hug my brothers good-bye I told them I wasn’t going to pat any more, and I drove them crazy by simple keeping my hands on their backs. You can also hug good female friends, though you don’t pat as hard—but you must pat, to convey that there’s nothing threateningly intimate about this particular hug. For more casual female friends you hug a little more sideways and one-armed. And so on to a bunch of other possibilities, such as the friendly slug to the shoulder teenaged boys used to give each other when I was a kid, or the rituals at more somber occasions such as funerals, or the particular rituals of a family.
The confusion is much greater, however, when you cross your own culture’s boundaries and you have to figure things out on the fly somewhere else. In France and Belgium it’s lots of cheek-kissing rather than hugging. A kiss on each cheek in Paris for casual and good female friends, including among females. Good male friends and male relatives in France might kiss each other once on the cheek. In Brittany, a woman entering a room will give two kisses on each cheek (left-right-left-right) to everyone present, including people just met (as long as they’re friends of friends), and she’ll go all around the room to include everyone; men will kiss at least all the women in the room twice on each cheek, and shake hands with older men, while boys through the teen years will kiss the cheeks of all. The ritual takes so long that at least one course will go cold while everyone takes a turn, and you’ll all develop a little whiplash. In Belgium it’s three kisses (left cheek-right cheek-left cheek) when you greet a woman you know fairly well, but only one kiss on the left cheek if you know them well; men shake hands, softly, as opposed to a firm (perceived as aggressive) American handshake. In Italy lots of kissy greetings among all. In Sweden I never could quite figure out any pattern, but there was no kissing, nor was there in Switzerland, or England. The kissing corridor of Europe seems to run from Italy through Spain and France and stop at the northern Belgian border (though there are variations among generations too, I’m speaking mostly of my own). And the examples would multiply across other countries and cultures, about which I’m sure T&S readers experienced in other parts of the world can say much.
Trickier still than merely mastering the outward rituals, and most important of all, is learning what they mean. Sometimes it’s not entirely clear even within your own culture. Does a culture’s preference for hug or kiss or handshake suggest that a non-preferred form of greeting is perceived as more threatening or less threatening? Thus does a kissing culture regard a hug as more threatening and invasive than a kiss? Or do they truly think that kissing best conveys affection? Is a hugging culture terrified of a kiss, which involves far less overall touching? And of course is either a friendly hug or kiss necessarily sexual? You might say no or mostly no if you hug or kiss people of both genders. But a recently returned missionary in the wedding line told me that she was weary from hugging so much on her (US) mission, then quickly added that of course she hugged only people of the same gender. So maybe a hug was somewhat sexual. Yet many of the people who insist on same-gender hugging only also believe, ironically, that same-gender attraction is learned rather than innate. Then there were the early Christians, who routinely engaged in the holy kiss before participating in the Eucharistic meal; the main purpose of their weekly Sunday meeting, and of the Eucharistic (or Thanksgiving) meal at its heart, was fellowship, and so before the meal was served they all engaged in the holy kiss to signify and even promote fellowship. The kiss was on the mouth, rather than the less intimate cheek, because breath was believed to bear the soul and thus to promote unity of souls. Even this gesture wasn’t meant to have a sexual edge, but by about 200 bishops were lamenting that some were “injecting the poison of licentiousness” into their kisses. Thus the practice was modified—either restricted to those of the same gender, or, in later centuries, modified to everyone kissing the same object, a “pax” (peace) board that was brought around for the “kiss of peace.” Nowadays Christians engage in the kiss of peace usually by shaking hands at the appropriate moment. My mother told me that when I was a child at least our Mormon ward was still drinking from the same large mug or container during the water portion of the sacrament, which also suggests an effort at physical if sexually unthreatening fellowship (I’m sure it was threatening in a lot of other ways).
I’m not proposing a solution or central argument here. I’m too exhausted for that, and my back too sore from so many manly accolades. If you want tentative answers, anthropologists and historians have studied these things in great detail. I’m merely reflecting on how interesting and complicated humans can be, how my head is spinning from trying to figure out who should be greeted in what way, and how especially at this time of the year trying to cope with a bewildering array of greetings is a good problem to have. Despite all the risks and cultural mazes, many people (at least those in my cultural circles) obviously think it’s important to touch and be touched, however awkwardly or differently we go about it.