In France, it’s customary to welcome friends with a peck on each cheek. In New Zealand, the Maori nose press is traditional. But it seems the English are increasingly confused about how to greet each other – because of the decline of the phrase “How do you do?”.
The formal salutation has fallen into disuse in recent decades, leaving the shy English with no safe way of starting conversations with strangers, according to the social anthropologist Kate Fox.
Speaking at the Hay Festival over the weekend, Ms Fox told the audience every nation except England had managed to develop a standardised greeting which was understood by all.
“I know people think that ‘how do you do’ is an archaic, stuffy, sort of upper classy-type thing to say. But we really should be mounting a campaign for its revival because since ‘how do you do’ declined as a standard greeting we haven’t known what to say.”
Ms Fox painted an awkward picture of the English, claiming they didn’t know what to do with their hands or whether to kiss people once or twice. “Every single other nation on the planet has a straightforward ritual for greeting someone,” she said. “We seem to be the only ones who can’t reach a consensus on what’s appropriate.”
Her book, Watching the English: the Hidden Rules of English Behaviour, was first published 10 years ago, but has recently been updated to explore the changes in society over the past decade.
One such change is the rise of social media, which Fox describes as “a pub with its own social rules”.
“We now have this whole new range of ways of avoiding conversation and avoiding eye contact, which is your mobile, your tablet, your laptop, or whatever,” she said.
“They actively encourage conversation with strangers, including conversation about intimate details of your private life, talking openly to a whole pile of strangers. Not something we normally do.”
Talking about the weather is the closest thing the English have to a social ice breaker, she added, saying that making small talk about rain had become the English equivalent of chimps picking fleas off one another. “They groom each other’s fur and pick fleas off each other, even when they’re perfectly clean, as social bonding,” she said.
“When you say, oh gosh isn’t it cold, you’re not asking for a meteorological report. It’s a way of saying ‘hello’, or ‘I’d like to talk to you’, without having to say anything quite so direct.”
Ms Fox also told the audience about a foreign friend who believed England to be a nation of intellectuals after seeing so many people reading on public transport. Fox said: “Unfortunately I had to explain to her that this was not about being brainy, this was about contact avoidance.”
The greeting “How do you do” is not the only phrase to have fallen out of favour in recent years.
In 2012, linguists said that some English words such as bally, laggard, rambunctious, verily, felicitations, and spiffing would confuse the texting generation.