Social distancing has demanded seismic changes to our habits of social greeting. Touch is out. New approximations of the handshake, hug, or kiss seem trite, lacking the depth of the custom and purpose of what they replace. They are enacted across a void, reinforcing distance and separation. The air fist bump? The air high five? The foot shuffle? Clever, spontaneous, nonpercussive, nonstarters, in my humble opinion. They seem ironic.

The point in social greeting is to bridge the void; to welcome; to invite; to accept; to show affection. Irony is out.

A culture says a lot about itself through its greeting conventions. The Western handshake claims interrogative power. You can tell a lot about a person on first meet and greet by gripping hands. Firm? Weak? How long a clasp is appropriate to be a shake and not hand holding? But remember the original intention, to say, “I am not armed.” Handshakes have a militaristic lineage.

In a few cultures, the enduring hand clasp feels a little more benign. It signifies to others in the vicinity that conversation is in progress – “Do not disturb! I have the attention of this person!” Noted and respected.

I’ve always liked the way the French and other Europeans kiss on both cheeks, men and women. To an American, it seems overly intimate, but it is done even with strangers. It’s disarming, gentle, vulnerable. It’s a restoration of contact and connection in the morning when colleagues or family members reconvene their day together with a kiss.

I also like the Inuit nose rub and the Maori forehead touch for similar reasons. However, they too will probably be ill-advised, at least for a while.

Some cultures may already have solutions for us to consider in their long-standing traditions – not just as replacements but as improvements. How about the Japanese convention, the bow? It looks like a concise dance partnership performed without physically touching, but there’s more going on than choreography.

A former school colleague spent two years perfecting his bow. “By nature, we are curious but we are not humble,” says Paul Perkinson. “If we are paying attention, life teaches us humility. I learned to bow – really bow – sometime after my first year of living in a very rural northern Japanese village. Prior to that my bow was polite and courteous and correct. After that, it became a partial submission to an unknown good and an authentic, heartfelt acceptance of another. It is that simple … and that difficult.”

And that un-American. Our greetings tend to eschew submission. But the bow portends the kind of emotional connection we might hope to feel. I like its disarming offer of respect and humility. It would take effort to enjoy such transformative possibilities and benefits. And it suggests something else could be at work for us.

If physical distancing remains enforced, perhaps becoming the new normal, how might our emotional distancing decrease, our acceptance quicken?

Evolution is often thrust upon a people. We could move toward something more metaphysical, like the greeting from inner space implicit in the Zulu statements “Sikhona” and “Sawubona”: “I am here to be seen,” and “I see you.” The eyes have it. I see you; you can see me. Vulnerability, interest, offering, acceptance. It is emotional un-distancing, when we meet and part.

If there is in fact a new normal emerging from our social distancing, I’d like to adopt the Zulu as antidote. It is a verbal bow; verbal humility; also submission to an unknown good, plus acceptance, and entertaining possibility. It augurs communion. That’s a terrific new normal. Let it go viral.


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