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Greeting people can be a risky business, especially during a pandemic. The western custom of shaking hands gives germs the opportunity to be passed from one person to another. As we use our hands for such a wide range of tasks, from eating, preparing food, gardening, petting animals, cleaning, toilet activities, touching nose, eyes and mouth, they can be a source of many types of harmful bacteria and viruses, including cold and flu viruses, Salmonella, E coli and norovirus. Hand-borne infections are responsible for around 30% of diarrhoea-related illnesses and 20% of respiratory infections.
That’s touching someone, but being close to another person also has its risks. Standing near someone with a respiratory disease increases the risk of spreading of colds, flu, COVID-19 or even TB via airborne droplets that can be inhaled. Imagine that someone is smoking and, wherever you can smell the smoke, you could be inhaling infectious particles. That’s how to view the risk from respiratory diseases. So all customs for kissing greetings and nose bumps that put you up close to other people’s breath are ones to avoid if you want to stay safe from these diseases.
We all need to keep safe, so what other hygienic ways of greeting someone are there to replace the good old-fashioned handshake or kiss.
It may surprise you to know that a fist bump transmits 90% fewer germs than a handshake! But when you think of it, it’s not really surprising, as the area and time of skin contact is much less, so there’s less opportunity for germs to transfer. Also, it uses the skin on the back of the fingers, which is less likely to come into contact with food or objects you might put in your mouth. This makes a fist bump a great, more hygienic, greeting alternative to a handshake.
Some say it was made popular by President Obama, but its origins go back a few decades. It probably originates from the custom of touching gloves at the start of a fight in boxing and was used by baseball and basketball players, and even characters in a cartoon, as early as the 1970s.
First used 3,000 years ago, this traditional Chinese greeting showed that you were not holding any weapons. Today, it shows that you’re not going to pass on any germs by keeping your hands to yourself!
To do it properly, men and women place their hands differently. For a man, the right hand is made into a half fist and the left hand placed over it at chest height. Women place the right hand over the left with a more open fist. These days, the fist salute is used on traditional occasions such as Chinese New Year, weddings, birthdays and funerals – though hands are reversed for a funeral.
Don’t forget to say some traditional lucky greeting words as you make the gesture: “Hello”, “Nice to meet you”, “Happy new year”, as appropriate. And don’t mix it up with the palm salute, which uses a flat palm against the fist, unless you want to take up Kung Fu lessons.
This greeting was introduced by health officials during the avian flu scare in 2006 and gained popularity during the 2009 swine flu outbreak and the Ebola outbreak of 2014. Its origins are thought to date back to the 1980s, though. It has gained more prominence in the last couple of years because of the COVID-19 pandemic when politicians were shown using it instead of shaking hands.
If you’ve never seen this casual greeting, it consists of simply touching the other person‘s elbow with your own – eliminating the use of your hands.
This is the most recent form of greeting and emerged, as its name suggests, from the city of Wuhan in 2020 during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Wuhan shake involves two people facing each other and tapping the insoles of their feet with each other. It went viral for a period when some videos emerged of people in China doing it and a few high-profile politicians were shown greeting each other with it.
It started as a fun reaction to the requirement for social distancing, but doesn’t seem to have grown in popularity since then. In some cultures, such as in Thailand, using your feet to touch people, point at people or things, or even put your feet on a desk or chair is considered very rude, so it’s probably better to leave this greeting to the history books and keep your feet for walking.
The traditional Indian and Southern Asian Anjali mudra, in which the palms and fingers of each hand are pressed together and held up in front of the body, is associated with prayer, yoga, dance and greetings. It was first recorded by the Indus Valley civilisation around 4,000 years ago and spread through Hinduism and Buddhism to cultures and religions stretching from Nepal and Bhutan in the north to countries in South East Asia and the Buddhists, Taoists and Shintoists in East Asia.
Anjali is a Sanskrit word that describes the cavity formed between the palms for holding an offering. It means “respect” or “reverence” and mudra means “seal”. In India, for greeting friends, the hands are held at chest height accompanied by the word “namaste”.
Each country may have slightly different variations in how they greet each other. In Thailand, it is called “wai”, Indonesia “sembah”, and the hands are held up to the chest, chin or nose, with a slight bow, depending on how senior or older the other person is. The junior or younger person does it first and raises their hands higher to show more respect. There are more nuances than that, but there is no need for those details here.
With such a long history and portrayal of respect to the other person, perhaps this should be more common in the west. This greeting is also very hygienic, with no touch and keeping a distance between people, so it keeps the spread of germs to a minimum.
The simple downward head nod is commonly used to indicate acceptance or agreement in many cultures. The upward nod is widely used as an informal greeting among friends or close acquaintances.
Compared to the other greetings, this is more of a pre-greeting, acknowledging someone before initiating a form of greeting such as a handshake or fist bump. However, as the head nod requires no touching of any kind, it is a hygienic way to greet someone informally.
Bowing, which is more emphatic than a nod, is a traditional way of greeting, showing gratitude and making apologies in East Asia, especially Japan and South Korea. There are complex customs for how you bow in which situation and to people of different status, such as family, a boss or co-worker. So if you haven’t been brought up with the customs, it might be best to get advice from a native or watch Korean or Japanese movies and drama such as Squid Game.
Now you might be thinking that due to the germs spread during a simple handshake that this form of greeting should be stopped. Well, it doesn’t have to be.
The problem with handshakes and the transmission of germs can be simply defeated by practising proper hand hygiene. Handshaking is still a great way to greet someone and is recognised around the world – even in countries with other traditions.
Just remember to wash and dry your hands thoroughly, especially after you touch places on your body that can carry infectious germs, such as your mouth and nose, and after using the washroom.
Also, carry some hand sanitiser with you for when you can’t access soap and water. You’ll have fewer illnesses as a result. Hygiene practices adopted during the pandemic are still useful for everyday hygiene to prevent numerous other common illnesses.
However, if you’re feeling under the weather, it’s advised that you stay away from the trusted handshake and use an alternative greeting just so you keep contamination to a minimum. If possible, don’t even go near other people because the viruses that cause colds, flu and COVID-19 are airborne, too, and you can infect people nearby.
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