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What will physical greetings look like in a post-coronavirus world?

It might be a while before we can offer a hug or handshake. But that's ok.

What will physical greetings look like in a post-coronavirus world?

(Photo: Unsplash/United Nations)

Kelly Sutton is reckoning with a world without hugs. Sutton, 43, a television host and country music journalist in Nashville, has struggled with social distancing, considering her greeting of choice involves throwing her arms around her conversation partner.

“There is something about that feeling, you know, when someone hugs you, you get that warm fuzzy inside,” she said. “It’s that physical I see you, I love you, I love your spirit. It gives you so much more energy. It’s almost like an energy exchange.”

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Isolated with her husband and daughter in their home in Franklin, Tenn., Sutton has relied on her family to fulfill her hug quota. “My poor dog is like, Let go, let go!”

As we now know, the coronavirus is spread through close contact, so health officials have urged people to maintain a distance of at least six feet from one another, and cultures around the world have put a moratorium on physical gestures like hugs and cheek kisses.

Dr Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading infectious disease expert, has called for the end of handshakes, as hands can pick up germs from surfaces.

Dr Mark Sklansky, chief of pediatric cardiology at Mattel Children’s Hospital at the University of California, Los Angeles, has long considered handshakes a “terrible idea from an infectious standpoint,” and, in 2014, championed handshake-free zones in health care facilities.

Likewise, Tiffany Field, director of Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami, said physical gestures were unlikely to resume anytime soon. “I don’t think we’re going to have hugs and handshakes for a long time,” she said.

With such nonverbal greetings so ingrained in our cultures, however, we must now consciously evaluate our behaviors and create new habits for the sake of public health.

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All over the world, physical and nonverbal gestures are used in greetings and departures, such as cheek kisses in Europe and Latin America and bows in Japan and India.

“A greeting is an action, and action has a message,” said Andy Molinsky, a professor at the International Business School at Brandeis who wrote the book Global Dexterity: How To Adapt Your Behavior Across Cultures Without Losing Yourself In The Process. 

“When you hug someone and give them a tight squeeze, you might be saying ‘I miss you.’”

Interpreting these gestures is an emotional shorthand that has allowed humans to convey a lot while saying little. The handshake, for instance, can be used as an introduction, a show of sportsmanship and a peace offering, and its earliest known depictions are in artwork dated to the ninth century BC.

In those early days, handshakes signaled that the parties involved were unarmed, said Patti Wood, a body language and human behaviour expert who wrote the book Snap: Making The Most Of First Impressions, Body Language And Charisma.

“Safety is one of the first and major reasons we greet people,” she said.

In more modern applications, a physical greeting can be a marker of social status, Wood said. Who offers the handshake first and the strength of the grip are subtle power plays.

“In Asian cultures,” Wood said, “you bow deeper the more powerful the person you’re bowing to is.”

In many cultures, physical greetings are more indicative of the depth of a relationship than status or power. A full-bodied hug from a family member, a kiss on the cheek from a friend, a fist-bump from a gym buddy – these are ways of building warmth and intimacy with our social connections.

Because handshakes and hugs are regular parts of our physical repertoire, these habits are difficult to break, said Paul Zak, who studies the neuroscience of behavioural economics at Claremont Graduate University in California.

Fear, however, is a powerful motivator, he said, and a desire for safety may trump one’s dedication to the handshake.

A changing environment can cause those habits to “change rapidly,” he said, as we are seeing during the current pandemic.

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While some people may be eager to resume their usual behaviours after social-distancing measures have been relaxed, in the absence of a coronavirus vaccine, many will be more cautious with their interpersonal interactions, Dr Molinsky said.

Instead of reverting to familiar physical greetings, he said, society will adopt new ones with similar meanings. Instead of interpreting a neighbour’s beeline to the other side of the street with a quick nod as cold and distant, we may perceive it as a safe acknowledgment.

“I suspect that there’ll be some sort of semi-universal slack-cutting that goes on in terms of if someone engages in a gesture you’re not used to or doesn’t follow the social script,” he said.

“People will have this psychological pause button where they’re saying: ‘Oh, wait a second. We’re in this time. They’re probably protecting themselves from contagion.’”

While just a few months ago it might have been rude to rebuff a handshake in a business meeting, the rules around social niceties have changed, said Lizzie Post, the co-host of the Awesome Etiquette podcast. 

Until a vaccine is widely available, the polite course of action is to take extra care to keep others’ health in mind.

“We always say safety supersedes etiquette,” Post said. “There’s a global pandemic that we’re all trying to stay safe from. Therefore the actions that make us safe to one another, to a society, are going to be the proper, considerate and honest things to be doing right now.”

Dr Zak predicted bows or head nods would gain favour as nontouch greetings. Wood anticipated that people would maintain more physical distance between one another before engaging in conversation.

Dr Zak suggested outlining boundaries when it comes to group interactions.

“We can set the standard of, Hey, we’re having this meeting, we shouldn’t shake hands yet, we’re not through the coronavirus epidemic,” he said. “We can just state that and decide that’s the new normal.”

It’s also possible that, for many people, the new normal won’t feel so abnormal. After all, physical gestures already appeared to be declining before the pandemic, according to Dr Field’s research.

Over the past 15 months, Dr Field and her team analysed the behaviours of people at airport gates around the world and found that they spent most of their pre-boarding time in airports engaged with their phones and not with other travellers.

“I think we were on our way to not touching so much in public with these airport gate studies we were doing,” she said.

“I think people are so into their cellphones and into technology and social media that I don’t think they’re going to feel really touch-deprived. If they were, they would’ve felt it before this pandemic, and I don’t think it was really happening.”

While it’s true we may miss out on some of the many health benefits of daily human touch – decreases in heart rate, blood pressure and stress hormones and increases in bonding hormones like oxytocin – Dr Field said that interpersonal contact wasn’t the only way to get the feel-good benefits of touch.

As long as the skin is being activated by exercise, stretching or even a prolonged scrub in the shower, you’re stimulating the skin’s pressure receptors, and activating therapeutic responses within the body that induce relaxation and reduce depression, anxiety and heart rate.

“When you move your skin, you’re slowing down the nervous system and the production of stress hormones,” Dr Field said.

“I think people who are home alone are going to have to do a lot of exercise, a lot of walking around the living room to stimulate, to move their skin. That’s what’s really critical for health.”

READ: COVID-19: How to hug during a pandemic


To compensate for the loss of physical closeness in greetings, we may need to be more emotionally open, Wood said.

“When you shake hands, it’s equal to three hours of face-to-face interaction,” she said. “If you don’t shake hands, it takes about three hours to get to the same level of rapport if you did not shake hands.”

Even at a safe distance, we can inquire about our conversation partner’s family, hobbies and favorite television shows, establishing familiarity and building the relationship verbally instead of physically.

“It could be a verbal handshake: ‘I really appreciate you,’ ‘I really value you,’” Dr Zak said. “We’ve got to replace that emotional component that was implicit now with something explicit. If that sticks, maybe that’s a beautiful thing.”

Until a coronavirus vaccine is developed, Sutton, the Nashville journalist, said she would put her hugging on hiatus, maybe opting for a bow or fist bump in its absence. She’ll have to monitor her actions, she said, and curb her natural instinct to say hello with a loving squeeze. At least for now.

“Once this is tied up with a nice, neat little bow,” Sutton said, “I think I will go back to hugging people.”

By Allie Volpe © The New York Times

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Source: New York Times