The reason that deciding how to greet people can make one cringe these days is simply because the customs are in a complete state of flux. Fifty years ago sons called their fathers "Sir" and shook their hands on meeting; now hugs between men are commonplace. If my friends are anything to go by, kisses on the cheeks, and even kisses on the lips are quite the norm, though I have to say that when it comes to lips I usually avert my mouth at the last minute, like a baby when you try to offer it a final mouthful of food. Cheeks, yes. Lips, no. (Secretly, as an uptight Englishwoman, handshakes suit me fine.)
But as far as men go, probably the average state of play at the moment is that fathers and sons hug, and so do young men and close friends. Handshaking men are allowed to hug on special occasions, like at funerals or weddings. But recently, observing how men react when they meet has thrown up some weirdly different behaviour.
There's the slap on the shoulder, there's the whack on the back, or even a bit of hair-mussing. (This is a tremendously peculiar one. Imagine if you were a woman, and a girlfriend came up to you, extended her painted fingernails, and proceeded to muss up your hair. You'd be livid. However, some men see it as a sign of affection)
Then there's an extraordinary American meeting ritual, in which, one American punches the other on the chest, and the other reels back jokingly, bouncing about, making boxing movements. Utterly baffling.
Some reasons given for our formality have included the fact that we live in a cold climate, and our beastly weather doesn't encourage large, expansive gestures; or that we live on an island and are crucially aware of our limited space.
But those reasons don't wash with me. I think the great anxiety of Englishmen is that if they embrace too closely they might be thought to be gay. Continentals, who are much easier with their sexuality, or at least appear to be, have far fewer hang-ups about greeting other men. They kiss each other to bits, hug, and even long after the greeting is over, one may still have his arm around the shoulder of the other.
Funnily enough, even the most rigid of Englishmen can cope with this behaviour from a Continental. They know exactly what it means, and never fear a surreptitious stroke on the bottom while the hug is taking place.
I have two thoughts for Jon. One is that he should simply tell himself he's a handshaker, always has been and always will be. A hug and a kiss is fairly meaningless; Jon's real love and affection for his friend will always show in other, more practical ways. Or, if he wants to become a new man, he should start slowly. At the next meeting, use two hands to shake his friend's one; at the next shake his hand but put a hand on his lower arm. Then shake his hand while putting the other hand on his shoulder and giving him a tremendous pat. At the next meeting, shake his friend's hand at the same time as drawing him a bit closer and patting him on the back.
Then it is really up to his friend to draw closer and, before he knows it, be drawn into a hug.
Of course, if they don't meet regularly it would be about 2005 before they reach this stage. But by then the customs of how to greet other will, hopefully, be thoroughly sorted out.
Do what feels right
As a prickly teenager I spent the summer with a close-knit Scottish family. The father drove me to catch a train for school, dropping off his sons on the way. They kissed goodbye openly, yet in my world, at that time, even mother's kisses were something to be wary about. At the station I extended my hand. He took it between his for a moment, and then enveloped me in a bear hug I can still feel in my memory and which lightened my heart for hours.
Forty years later, a young man aged all of six told me firmly he was now too big to be kissed. Certainly, I said, we should always greet people in a way that makes them feel good. The trouble was, I felt too old not to be kissed. Next time we met, I duly shook his hand, after which he jumped up to clasp his arms round my neck like a monkey. This has been our private ritual ever since, a deadpan formal handshake followed by the joyous embrace
Attitudes have changed
More males indulge in hugs these days, without embarrassment. This need not involve a kiss, even if cheeks touch. Overcome your prejudice, and give your friend a hug!
No one will be offended
My Albanian husband was brought up to kiss his male friends and relatives on each cheek whenever they meet. When greeting my male friends or relatives, he forgets they are not of his ethnic background and has usually kissed them before they realise what's happening.
Often I have needlessly held my breath, awaiting horrified expressions. People are either so involved in flurries of hugging and kissing that they don't realise who's doing what, or they look flattered by his affection! So go on, show some of yours!
Next Week's Dilemma
My 24-year-old son has never stuck at anything. Although he's extremely clever, he left school without taking any A-levels. He's done a variety of courses - a foundation course at art school, and a business management course which he dropped out of. He started a course of art history, which I paid for, but he left after one term. Now he just stays at home, gets up late and watches TV. I feed him but don't give him money. I suspect he gets it from a bit of drug-dealing. His father wants to throw him out, but I feel he'll get deeper into drugs and end up in prison. What can I do? He's a lovely person in himself. Yours sincerely, Anne
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