Greeting rituals - some are charming, others not so much


I've never been especially fond of shaking hands. As a child, I rated it on the same level of disdain as being kissed by smothering, elderly ladies with the facial hair of a porcupine.

Today, I'm older, wiser, but more germophobic. So the thought of millions of bacteria and viruses hitching a ride on our skin during this largely pointless human greeting ritual only makes it more hideous - especially this winter with the near-epidemic flu season currently in full swing.

When you actually think about it, handshaking is a rather odd custom with a somewhat obscure origin. One plausible theory dates from Roman times when men carried daggers and similar weaponry for protection as they traveled the long, lonely roads.

If they came upon a stranger, it was apparently not uncommon to reach for one's blade and brandish it as a warning to a potential assailant. (Not a particularly friendly greeting, perhaps, and even today not an entirely unknown gesture in some urban areas). However, once it was established that your new acquaintance was not planning to steal all your hard-earned denarii, daggers would be re-sheathed. Presumably, travelers eventually just extended open hands upon meeting to demonstrate your benign intent, ultimately evolving to gripping them together.

It seems there could also be a biological component associated with greeting rituals, because they are not restricted to humans. Other primates, such as chimpanzees, commonly greet each other by touching hands, too, although they rarely reach for weapons or antiseptic hand wipes.

Handshaking is actually a somewhat simplistic form of greeting compared to the more elaborate behavior displayed by other animals. In fact, methods of expressing welcome in other species are as varied as the species themselves.

For instance, wild dolphins greet their pals using individual whistle signatures. Each has a unique whistle which the dolphins use to recognize one another. Of course, human males once widely mimicked this technique to casually acknowledge the presence of female members of their species - that is until the 1960s when many female humans quite rightly began spurning this primitive greeting ritual, regarding it as offensive and evidence of limited emotional evolution in their male counterparts.

In the case of large cats such as lions, they generally greet by rubbing their heads and bodies against each other. Again, it would probably be unwise for humans to mimic such contact, at least during an initial meeting since this gesture could be misinterpreted. Better to remain a little more aloof like domestic cats that are far less demonstrative than their larger cousins and merely extend their tails straight up when a fellow feline approaches.

Other animal greetings are quite charming: Elephants say "hi" by entwining their trunks; giraffes press their necks together; horses rub noses; penguins tap their bills together. But some are less appealing - canine tailgating obviously comes to mind.

In fact, quite a few animal species are clearly in need of etiquette lessons when it comes to salutations. For instance, lobsters greet by squirting urine on each other. It appears that when two boisterous males meet, their urine carries a record of who's the boss and this helps to avoid fights. No doubt this crustacean welcoming gesture would escalate conflict should humans adopt it.

But mammals, too, can demonstrate less than hygienic greetings: hippos display aggressive and territorial characteristics by hurling excrement on rivals when they meet in the herd. And if this practice sounds somewhat familiar, it should. That's because it's sometimes observed in human society, particularly during a ritual known as "political campaigning."

Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Alabama, and has written features, columns, and interviews for more than 650 magazines and newspapers.