Handshakes and kisses and hugs, oh my! These common greetings are now the means to spread the novel coronavirus, otherwise known as COVID19. As the world struggles to slow the spread of the virus, people are having to change the way they greet others. In many cultures, physical contact is the primary form of greeting. I was curious about how, and why, humans became so touchy-feely in their greetings, so I did some casual research.
According to history.com, the act of shaking hands has “existed in some form or another for thousands of years, but its origins are somewhat murky.” Some historians believe the handshake was originally a way of conveying peaceful intentions. By offering an empty hand, strangers could show they weren’t holding weapons. Another possible explanation is that “the handshake was a symbol of good faith when making an oath or promise. When they clasped hands, people showed that their word was a sacred bond.” For whatever reason, the handshake became a ritual gesture expressing a friendly approach.
Images of hand shaking are dated as far back as the ninth century B.C. in a relief that shows the Assyrian King Shalmaneser III clasping hands to seal an alliance. The epic poet Homer describes handshakes several times in the “Iliad” and “Odyssey,” usually to show a display of allegiance or trust. In ancient Rome, the handshake was often used as a symbol of friendship and loyalty. Pairs of clasped hands even appeared on Roman coins.
There is also a lot of speculation about the origin of kissing as a greeting. An article published by Psychology Today suggests that kissing is a “learned behavior that evolved from "kiss feeding," the process by which mothers in some cultures feed their babies by passing masticated food from mouth to mouth.” References to what could be kissing appear in ancient Indian and Asian, and kissing is mentioned in the works of Homer and the Christian Bible. The article also makes not of kissing recorded by Herodotus in his Histories, which date to the 5th century BC. In his writings, Herodotus gives accounts of “kissing among the Persians, who greeted men of equal rank with a kiss on the mouth and those of slightly lower rank with a kiss on the cheek.”
Kissing was particularly popular with the ancient Romans. They kissed their partners or lovers, family and friends, and rulers. They used kissing socially and marked the difference between a kiss on the hand or cheek (osculum) from a kiss on the lips (basium) and a deep or passionate kiss (savolium). Because so many people were illiterate, kisses served to seal agreements. This is likely the origin of the expression "to seal with a kiss.” A Roman citizen’s place in society also determined the part of the body on which he or she could kiss the emperor, from cheek to foot. Couples got married by kissing in front of a gathered assembly, a practice that still carries on today.
The act of hugging as a greeting may be the most naturally influenced gesture. In an article published in the journal Comprehensive Psychology, researcher Lena Forsell explores the origin of hugging and its social evolution. Forsell points out that “one of the first human experiences in life for the newborn baby is lying in the arms of its mother.” Infants experience many forms of parental touching during growth, “particularly embracing in the form of hugs, which become symbols for something positive: joy, security, and confidence. The child learns parts of the touching behavior of adults and is observed to hug himself, dolls, stuffed animals, living animals, and people, especially the parents.”
Generally, hugging is a more intimate gesture. As noted by Forsell, “the change from handshaking to hugging during an encounter is associated with a greater emotional involvement in one another often announced by a participant raising the arms, in a display of the intent to hug.” People who hug as a greeting are perceived as being more friendly and open, and studies indicate that hugging improves one’s overall mood and sense of wellness.
Humans rely heavily on physical contact to establish social connections. Whether you’re a hugger, kisser, or hand-shaker, you will have to change your method of greeting others going forward. The threat of spreading illness through physical contact has always been present. It’s unfortunate that it takes a pandemic to highlight the danger of physical greetings, but humans have adapted to preserve our race in the past and will continue to adapt in the future. The latest trends in social greeting are bowing, ankle touching, and yes, even the Dr. Spock Vulcan greeting with palm up and middle fingers forming a V-shape. If I see you in public, how will you say hello?