Tuesday, June 25, 2002

For a while I lived on a Mediterranean Island and like most people have spent time travelling around Europe. One conclusion I've been forced to draw during these peregrinations is that the British are an awkward bunch when it comes to greetings. Take the convention of the handshake for example. Although the most un British of social demonstrations the perfunctory chaste kiss has become increasingly popular and is now on the fringes of commonplace, (though still providing etiquette problems of area: left cheek, right cheek, the worrying and scandal-filled lips or the fresh-air, eyes-closed, pouters; and of quantity: One? Two? Three? Four!? The acceptable conventions of the handshake have yet to be properly resolved.

For the British the handshake is generally accepted practice during initial meetings as in "how do you do" before a launch into so many my name is's and basic first base descriptions of the self; but it is a far less natural performance when encountering those already known. The French, Germans, Italians, Greeks, Spanish are all completely unambiguous about when a hand should be offered to be shaken. It's simple. It's whenever they meet someone, whether known, or not. Always, hands are speared towards torsos, flesh is pressed and comradeship and affection sealed. A contrast to the rather stilted 'introductions-only style' more commonly used by we Brits.

It often seems immaterial to greeters from other nations as to whether they saw each other yesterday, hours or even minutes before, the handshake is invariably offered, and by each other, expected and accepted. The British however, prefer to verbalize their meetings, at a distance; physical contact deemed inappropriate or out of place.

But like with the continental kiss, things are changing; though as with the nouveau cheek peck hellos, problems can be expected. Half a lifetime of non-introductory handshaking is not given up easily. Typically you can bump into someone you know and a strange clumsy ritual begins involving twitching arms and curious glances: Should I? Do I? Ought I? Then - I will... I won't. He, (mainly he), hasn't. Twitch, twitch. Then before long, it's too late, and the time for spontaneous hand clasping is over. The moment lost forever.

It's another part of the old British reserve I suppose. And most of us I would imagine are happy that it's breaking down. Public displays of grief as demonstrated over the last few years, from Gazza's famous blubbing to Seaman's infamous whimpering (blast him). From the runnel filled faces during Diana's funeral to the cheating lachrymose Nasty Nick from BB1. "It's good to cry," said the sinisterly Scottish corporal to the "recruit" in 'Lad's Army' when he harsh whispered into the lad's cheek muscle dancing, lip-vibrating face. "I would take yee t' war do ya hear, I would take ye cos you wouldnee run away." before giving him a hearty, back hugging handshake. Handshakes. Let's get 'em done.

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