Greetings — we need to kiss all this confusion goodbye

Ukraine, Covid-19, climate change, rising living costs — it’s quite overwhelming and sometimes I stop facing the avalanche and mentally retire. In one of my retirement moments, I found myself contemplating the modern conundrum of greetings — something so important to get right. First impressions count, you see.

My father taught me the handshake — he despised a limp handshake and was horrified that his children might go into the world with such an affliction. Reading, writing, sex education, those topics were my mother’s domain. My father had more important knowledge to impart.

"Offer your hand first. Don’t wait for them — it’s important to be the initiator." His demonstration included a stern look. ‘‘It is important to look them in the eye. When you take their hand, grasp firmly and slightly rotate your wrist to the left, so your hand is on top. Then there will be no doubt about your authority, son."

You see, these instructions were for my brothers. A father teaching his sons to become men. They, of course, took it to the next level and any family handshake from that point on resembled an amateur wrestling match. All the while, I watched on and listened hard — knowing the day would come when women would shake hands as a sign of equal status. I’ve also always hated missing out.

I had my greeting sorted. I knew the rules. Wherever I went, my confident handshake went too. I had no mercy; limp-wristers knew they had met their match as I thrust my hand firmly forward — don’t dare leave me out because of my gender, I intimated. It worked well for many wonderful years — wherever I went, I was assured, in control, the epitome of the modern woman. This did not last. We started to go all European, first hugging and then, heaven forbid, kissing. My father is probably turning in his grave — metaphorically speaking, as he is actually sitting in a fancy wooden container on a shelf in my mother’s wine cellar (he would appreciate that).

My father liked order, he would not have liked the chaos that is today’s greeting environment — there are rules, but no-one knows what they are anymore. Hold out your hand for a handshake and someone leaps across the very clear boundaries into a hug. Go in for an air kiss and someone smacks their lips on your cheeks while you are left muffling into their ear.

I will share a truly awful experience in the hope that my transparency means we start to address the confusion around us. To this day, thinking about this event makes me want to rock in a corner with my eyes closed. I met a work colleague I hadn’t seen for a while. It was a formal setting — we were both suited up appropriately. "Anna, so great to see you," he says as he leans in for what was clearly going to be a cheek kiss. I braced myself but because we were slightly side on to each other, we misjudged our angles and horrifyingly, ended up having a lip-to-lip smacking kiss. Oh my lord, how does one ever recover from such misjudgement?

I, too, have tortured people with my poor understanding of the rules. After a few too many baijus at a Chinese banquet I was saying goodbye to my host. I went in for a huge and effusive hug (Chinese alcohol is very strong) only to read later that hugging is a "no-no" in Chinese business greetings. Every time I see that same businessman now, we laugh awkwardly and go for another hug, a humorous acknowledgement of my awkward gaffe — you see, there is no going back. If I offered a handshake now, what distance in our business relationship would that indicate?

Oh, there is so much said in a simple greeting and just as I started to feel the fog lifting in this brave hugging and kissing world, Covid arrived, shattering all I knew. After a hockey game now, we awkwardly "elbow tap" each other — surprisingly difficult to get right. Go in too hard with the elbow and no-one comes off a winner. In a business setting, we go in to shake a hand, or even partake in a hug, only to find our partner leaves us hanging — "Oh no, we better not, Covid and all that."

I turn 50 this year. I am quite excited about this — a lot of people don’t have the privilege of making 50.

Fifty is an age of gravitas, an age of not just understanding the rules, but being the rules: gaffes and embarrassment, a thing of the past — people will be looking to me for authority. We need to sort this greeting conundrum or, I fear, my mana will be lost.

Covid has put the world in turmoil and how I long for a firm handshake from my dad.

 - Anna Campbell is a co-founder of Zestt Wellness, a nutraceutical company, and a partner of AbacusBio Ltd, an agritechnology company.

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