Hellos Without Handshakes
Could Americans ever bow? Here are some alternatives to the handshake
It began with a simple statement to mark the death knell. “I don’t think we should ever shake hands ever again,” said Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).
It’s already awkward as an American not extending my hand to acquaintances old and new, quickly shoving hands in pockets to avoid the reminder that we can no longer shake hands. The handshake isn’t just a greeting, it’s also a social cue used to signal the end of a conversation or meeting. But greetings may soon become sterile if we don’t adopt an alternative.
Elbow bumping like fraternity brothers? No thanks. So if we must bid farewell to the handshake, then it’s time to usher in it’s replacement.
Perhaps we can take a page from around the world and learn how to greet and show respect for others without touching. It most definitely won’t be the Maasai tribe’s tradition of spitting on each other to show respect in Kenya. But here are some other options.
Namaste / Namaskar
Namaste and Namaskar are used in India, Nepal and possibly your western yoga class as a simple greeting of hello. Namaste is considered more modern, while the latter is the more formal and may be used when addressing elders or more love and respect. Namaste is usually used in India and Nepal while the term Namaskar is frequently used in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh. The gesture includes a bow towards the other person while pressing the palms and fingers (pointing upwards) of both hands together and close to the chest.
Though the terms are used in deference; namaste is translated to “I bow to you” or “I bow towards you” while namaskar means “I bow to your existence”, they have not been without controversy. In 2019, Indian diplomats snubbed Pakistani officials by refusing to shake hands and instead offering the namaskar. And a school in Georgia banned the phrase namaste for yoga as parents believed it was associated with a religious practice.
The Thai Wai
The wai was recently recommended by Sylvie Briand of the World Health Organization as an acceptable alternative to handshaking. Customary in Thailand, the wai, is used for greetings and to say goodbye with the palms of the hands pressed together in a prayer-like gesture with fingers pointing upward, with the gentle head bow.
Though quick and subtle, the position of the hands will indicate the level of respect. A peer wai is a general greeting and similar to ‘hi’ with a slight nod as the thumbs of the pressed palms briefly touch the chin. A more respectful wai raises the hands upwards further, so that the thumbs touch the nose. For the most respectful version, use the monk wai which elevates the hand motion to the hairline.
Similar to the Thai wai greeting is the Cambodian sampeah, as the higher yours is, the more respect you show.
Bow With Hands at Sides
Japanese bows originate at the waist, with a straight back and neck, eyes looking downward and hands at the side, for men. Women may clasp hands in their lap as they bow. There are three versions: informal bows (eshaku) are made at a 15 degree angle, formal bows (keirei) at a 30 degree angle, and the most formal bow (saikeirei) at 45 degrees which is used to show deepest respect, apologies or sorrow.
In general, the deeper and longer the bow, the more respect and submission to superiors, clients and elders is demonstrated.
Rhythmic Hand Clapping
Perhaps inspired by Fitz and the Tantrums, this greeting of the Shona tribes promises, “I can make your hands clap!”
In Zimbabwe, a traditional greeting includes a clap after a handshake. The first person claps and the second person responds with two claps. The clapping is with hands in a cupping shape, so the air pocket makes for a lower tone.
In northern Mozambique, people also clap, but do so three times before they say “moni”, the equivalent of ‘hello’. The number of claps signify an additional proportion of respect to be shown. The three clap version is also used in Cameroon, Ghana and Senegal.
The Hat Tip
In the West, long before the elbow or fist bump, some men used the tip of the hat for a non-verbal greetings. This subtle gesture would be a slight lift of the front of the hat, keeping the back firmly on the head. It has also been used to signify a recognition of respect or gratitude, which is why it is now commonly used by journalists when referencing a person who brought information or inspiration to a story.
The Kanouri tribe in in southeast Niger greet each other with a shake of the first (up and down) at eye level. While doing this they will say “Wooshay! Wooshay!” which translates to “Hi!”
Raising your Eyebrows
In the Micronesia, people in the Marshall Islands use a raise of the eyebrows is commonly used to greet one another, but more broadly to acknowledge one’s presence. It’s that generalization of acknowledgement that also serves as a type of “yes” or “agree.” So it might be used by a client if he or she agrees with your proposal.
Sticking Out Your Tongue
This one is sure to be hit at your next business meeting. Sticking your tongue out in Tibet is a welcome tradition, and dates back centuries . The main purpose was to demonstrate that you weren’t the reincarnated 9th century evil king, Lang Darma who had a black tongue. If you’re is pink (and your business meeting is in Tibet), then you should be in the clear. All other geographies — well, you might have to explain yourself.