In One Kiss or Two?: The Art and Science of Saying Hello, British writer Andy Scott answers every question you have ever had about greetings. From the subtle distinctions between different cultural welcomes to the evolutionary history of saying ‘hello’, Scott covers it all. As he writes in the book, a greeting is “the essence of what it means to live together as humans”.
“When unpicked, our greeting rituals tend to be a mix of instinctive behaviours and socially learned conventions, revealing both our evolutionary heritage and cultural make up,” Scott explains to Culture Trip. His book is filled with information, but he also reminds us it is important to not stress too much when it comes to greeting someone. “Most of us know that it takes a lifetime to learn all of the quirks and absurdities that bind us. So while it’s often best to go with the flow and people appreciate when we make an effort to embrace their culture, there’s no point pretending that we’re something that we’re not.”
A proper greeting has five steps, according to Scott:
Step one: Inconvenience display
This first step may be the most surprising, at least in the way Scott explains it. This is where each party shows how they have made some sort of change to their day to make space for greeting the other person. At its most simple, this is standing up when someone new enters the room. However, it can begin long before you are in the same room as the person you are greeting, especially if you’ve gone out of your way to greet someone, such as picking them up from the airport. This is when you show the other person is important enough to take time for.
Step two: Sighting and orientation
Step two is about practicality. Make eye contact and notice the other person’s body language. A wave is a common feature of this step; it helps to clarify that you’ve made contact with the correct person as you walk towards them.
Are they going in for a kiss on the cheek or a handshake? You have to take notice of where they are putting their hand in order to know where to grab it. This step can be the most anxiety ridden; it’s easy to think someone is leaning for a kiss on the cheek only to find out mid-lunge that they only wanted a hug.
Step three: Contact display
This is the step we most commonly associate with greetings: the actual handshake and kiss on the cheek. This does not need to actually include physical contact, especially in traditions where a bow is more common.
Historically, these rituals were a show of being unarmed. Grasping the arm was a greeting, but it was also a check for hidden weapons. Although the original use is now rarely applicable, the tradition remains.
Step four: Greeting amplifiers
Amplifiers are any variations on the standard greeting that help personalize or convey greater respect or familiarity. This can be a deeper bow or a more complex handshake that the standard two pumps.
Scott points out a feature that commonly accompanies these moments: the embarrassment display. When the hug lasts a little too long or when the kissing includes one more cheek than was expected, there is an acknowledgement of this social stumble with some nervous laughter or short apologies.
Step five: Affirmations
Affirmations are typically verbal, unlike the previous four steps. One affirms the greeting and moves towards the next part of the conversation. “It is a pleasure to meet you” and “how are you doing?” are two examples.
Interestingly, the question “how are you doing?” comes with a predetermined response. The expected answer is “fine” or “not bad”. To give a more complex answer would indicate a strong level of familiarity, which is not appropriate for most greetings. This question is part of small talk, or acts as a ‘false first topic’. These are topics that allow the conversation to start, but are talking points of little consequence. Another example is chatting about the weather; it can take a minute to get the conversation flowing, and few people are going to be offended by the latest heat wave.
Greetings are so wrapped up in cultural practices and personal relationships that they can feel impossible to get it right. But just think of the experience as a space for learning, not anxiety.
“When it comes greetings and those first moments of interactions, in our own egocentric way, everyone is mostly worrying what other people are thinking about them – which, in a way, is liberating,” says Scott. “As Eleanor Roosevelt put it: ‘You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realised how seldom they do.'”
To learn more about the anatomy of greetings and other fascinating stories about saying hello, check out One Kiss or Two? The Art of Saying Hello from Andy Scott.