Goodbye handshakes! Marcel Theroux suggests a return to a less tactile and more courtly form of greeting
There’s a glimmer of something on the horizon. Whether it’s the rosy fingered light of dawn or something less pleasant, it’s hard to say. But clearly, as long the lurking possibility of renewed infection remains with us, we’re going to have to rethink some of our habits.
Now, when this whole Covid nightmare was in its infancy and seemed to be confined to China and northern Italy, but was largely sparing Thailand, I did wonder — in my scientifically unrigorous, arts graduate way — whether certain cultural norms contributed to its transmission.
I was thinking specifically of my Italian-American relatives and the way they greet each other with an affectionate bear-hug — at least, when they’re on speaking terms. Could over-intimate modes of salutation — cuddles, hugs, kisses on each cheek — explain or have contributed to the high rates of infection in Italy?
Well, no. That was cobblers. Covid has torn through the chilly British and the tactile Latins alike. Germany’s low transmission rates are uncorrelated with Teutonic reserve and instead have everything to do with competent governance.
But it’s still the case that hand-shaking, hugging, and even standing too close to each other are fraught with peril. When we come out of lockdown and finally encounter old friends, relatives and new acquaintances, we’re going to need something to get us through the first awkward moments of our encounters.
So I’ve got a suggestion. Let’s bow. Yes, bow — like a courtier before a monarch, like judokas before a bout, like Japanese salarymen, like people bowing. You know, you’ve seen it.
There’s certainly precedent for an apparently outmoded piece of cultural baggage returning as the vanguard. Where was the @ sign before email made it weirdly relevant? It was a useless vestige on a typewriter keyboard, as antiquated and pointless as ¶, which is itself surely on the verge of being repurposed as the symbol of a cutting edge tech corporation, or the name of a hip-hop collective. The podcast? My grandparents listened to them on the wireless. Wild swimming? They called it swimming. “TikTok” is the sound of obsolete clockwork. And let’s not get started on the resurrection of the Edwardian beard.
The bow, a gracious bend from the waist that gently works the abs and flexes the sacro-iliac joint, that briefly lowers the status of the bower to salute its recipient and burns approximately four calories a time, is not just a greeting, it’s exercise! And it has a whole philosophical dimension: it’s a brief and therapeutic embrace of inferiority. It says, “you know, I’m not as important as all that.” And it invites the response, “No, and neither am I.”
What a relief, instead of the stealthy MMA of those horrible handshakes that’s a bone-crushing signal of the owner’s alpha status, to incline your torsos humbly and symmetrically to one another, raise your glances to each other’s eyeline, and say, “My, it’s been a while.”
It even gives you a handy rule of thumb for maintaining effective social distancing: if your heads touch, you’re too close. You don’t have to worry about other people’s personal hygiene. There’s no need for alcohol hand rub. Start practising now. I feel this could catch on.
Marcel Theroux is a novelist and broadcaster. His most recent novel is The Secret Books (Faber and Faber)
This piece appears in Idler #73, July/August 2020. Copies available post-free here