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Say hello wave goodbye…

A hundred years ago it was all so easy. Men would bow, women would curtsey, and we all knew where we stood. It’s not so easy these days, as our resident worrier Jayne discusses…

Published on September 6th 2006.

Say hello wave goodbye…

Oh it was all so easy in the olden days. Men were gentlemen, women were ladies, and there were clear rules of etiquette to follow, according to class, intimacy and gender. You knew where you were with people. You knew how to greet them, what topics of conversation to cover, how to dress for your status and how to take your leave.

In today’s crazy world, it’s not quite so easy. Yes, we have more freedom of expression, we’re allowed the occasional Public Display of Affection without provoking too much of a stir, and we can wear pretty much whatever the hell we like. But the little social transactions that were once so easy are now the source of endless anxiety for many a social dunce like me.

There are many awkward moments in my typical day. The issue of who has right of way on a narrow staircase, for instance. Or how well you have to know somebody before you can talk to them while they’re in a toilet cubicle. Or, how many steps behind you somebody has to be for you to hold a door open for them.

Something that often troubles me is greeting people. Now I am fully aware that I think about things far too much. Everybody always tells me so. 'Jayne, you think about things too much' they say. But does nobody else suffer from those uncomfortable moments when they meet somebody new, when one person goes for a handshake while the other attempts a hug?

A man to man greeting is probably the easiest of social exchanges. It’s normally a handshake, or for close friends, families, or fellow drunks, an oafish man hug with a pat on the back. But what about when a man greets a woman? Is it a handshake? An Aztec greeting dance? Or a kiss on the cheek? I’d probably advise against the dance unless you know her particularly well, but if it’s a new acquaintance will she think you’re cold with a handshake, or inappropriate with a kiss?

Girl on girl greetings confuse matters even more. Is it a hug? A handshake? A kiss on the cheek? Or a continental kiss on each cheek? I have lost count of the number of times that I have gone in for the standard kiss on the right cheek with a new acquaintance and then, as I’ve pulled away, been locked in an uncomfortable face to face situation as the other person attempts to kiss my other cheek but ends up nearly kissing me on the lips.

Thinking about it, I have a different greeting for most of my friends. Some get hugs, some get a hand on the shoulder and a kiss on the cheek, and some of my more well bred friends have trained me to kiss them once on each cheek. Some of them, in one of the more amusing forms of greeting, just kiss the air as though I have some kind of contagious skin condition.

And what about work colleagues? If you have a business lunch with another woman do you shake her hand and seem cold, or kiss her and run the risk of experiencing that inappropriate feeling that came over you at school the time that you called your teacher ‘Mum’? As you can gather from the number of question marks so far, I have no idea. It’s enough to make me not want to leave my house for fear that I might get confused and hug the bus driver.

So what’s the answer? I have decided to invent a signage system, whereby everyone can wear a different colour hat according to how they like to be greeted. That should save a few awkward moments and at the same time put an end to bad hair days. If there’s a meeting between two people with the same colour hat, it’s easy. But when, for instance, a blue ‘handshaker’ meets a green ‘hugger’, the form of greeting to be used goes in favour of, um, the tallest of the two people.

To be absolutely honest, my idea is still in the design stages. But I’m sure I’ll get there, eventually. In the mean time I will just continue to be utterly confused with the world and wish that I had been born in a different century, when I had Mrs Beeton’s guide to etiquette within easy reach of every potentially awkward moment.

Jayne Robinson
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