Coronavirus must end of the crushing misery of the tactile greeting

This grand pause is the golden opportunity to press the reset button on the one kiss/two kiss/handshake hell

Trump bumps elbows with health care executive at coronavirus press conference

The last time I was in an actual restaurant, eating an actual meal, was on 5 March, for a work-related lunch with a woman I had only once met very briefly before.

On the way to the restaurant, I happened to watch a viral video from some town in Russia, showing the new “Covid handshake”, featuring some men on some freezing high street or other, greeting one another with the butting of the inside of their right shoe.

I also happened to read, on social media, a fellow journalist’s account of going to interview Salman Rushdie, and the pair of them engaging in elbow bumping.

It seemed a little far-fetched at the time, but then Rushdie has earned the right to over-caution on this front, knowing more than most about a life of self-isolation.

Suddenly, a new level of complexity I had not considered had placed itself above the already treacherous terrain of the Tactile Greeting.

Both parties arrived at the restaurant simultaneously on what was a truly foul day and, in the end, the greeting that was not so much settled on as just sort of happened was a kind of bumping of my right cheekbone against the exterior of my lunch partner’s coat hood – and in through the door we went. It was, shall we say, suboptimal.

The pandemic may or may not change life as we know it forever, but this Grand Pause presents a long overdue, perhaps once in a generation, opportunity for urgent reform in this currently hideous area.

Last week, the prime minister outlined his timetable for a return to semi-normal life. There were dates for when schools would reopen, football stadiums, workplaces and everything else.

But it is also a chance to set out clear and ideally legally enforceable rules that bring an end to the current one kiss/two kiss/handshake terrors that make modern life so difficult.

This, to be clear, is not a joke. According to a recent survey, conducted by me, in various WhatsApp groups a couple of hours ago, exactly 100 per cent of British people (and one French person and two Germans, as it happens), have precisely no idea what the current rules are regarding tactile greetings between members of the opposite sex in any social or professional situation, and this state of things is not sustainable in the long or even medium term.

It must be stated, from the outset, that this pertains only to exchanges between men and women. If the forearm clasping and air-kissing that men in many European countries exchange were ever to catch on here, it would have done so by now. That boat, certainly, has sailed.

I imagine this hell of not knowing may also hover over women-only occasions, but I will leave that particular area of the subject to others.

I know that many women speak of the horror of having men “go in for a kiss” when a handshake or perhaps a hug is more than enough.

I would certainly not describe myself as a goer-inner. But I would probably dare to suggest that goer-inners are equally distributed between the genders, and neither is content with the current situation, so reform is urgently needed.

It is almost 20 years since Ricky Gervais appeared on Parkinson, and admitted that before filming had begun, he had knocked on the dressing room door of the journalist Kate Adie, for no reason other than to ask, when he came down the stairs as the show’s second guest, whether she would be expecting a handshake, a kiss on one cheek or on both, as he was so terrified of making a fool of himself.

I cannot recall Adie’s response, but certainly in 20 years, nothing has changed. The situation remains perilous for all concerned.

I grew up in Essex and from there went to a university with very large numbers of posh people. I would estimate my social circle is now roughly 50 per cent posh and non-posh. In my experience, if there is any kind of cast-iron rule in this area, it is that posh people go for the two-cheek kiss, non-posh make do with one.

What this means, in real life, is that, and I hope I don’t speak solely for myself here, when being introduced to strangers, the final moment before the inevitable greeting is spent furiously scanning the subject for signs of social status, so as to not go in for two when only one is likely to be forthcoming, or retract and attempt to re-engage for a second which might take them by intensely awkward surprise.

Such last-second, class-based evaluations are not the path to social justice, or social enjoyment.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with a handshake. But unless all genders, and all people, unanimously agree to keep to it, then the whole edifice crumbles again. The strata are re-established.

The other rule seems to be that a kiss is normalised for friends, a handshake for strangers. This is the worst outcome of all. Currently, it is not uncommon to meet someone who your friends are already friends with, and they will be greeted with a kiss, and you a handshake.

And then, if the occasion has gone well, it might very well be that, on leaving, the handshake has been upgraded, in accordance with your status with the other person, who is no longer a stranger. Possibly now, even a friend.

What this means, however, is that you are forced into making a judgement on the success or otherwise of your interaction, before choosing which of the options to attempt on saying goodbye.

In work-based situations, it is suggested that the handshake is the gold standard. But this is not the case. Work colleagues, and indeed associates from different companies, are regularly very good friends. If the last time you saw one of your clients was when you were both three bottles of wine to the worse and having a great time in a box at Wimbledon, a stultifying handshake is unlikely to be the natural choice.

Not that long ago, I bumped into a close colleague from work at a very spivvy party. Almost immediately, as an act of second nature, a two-cheek kiss was exchanged. Why, exactly? It must have been the 3000th time we had said hello or goodbye, and this had never happened before. So evidently, we must, somewhere in the subconscious, be judging the quality of the occasion, too.

All this, frankly, must stop. I make no suggestions as to what should replace it. If it is to be handshakes all round then it must be all round. Boys, girls, men, women, children, the lot. The peck on the cheek must be flat out banned.

It is not too late for a very small amount of good to come of all this.

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