No-touch greeting gestures in times of COVID-19

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Column
Tineke nugteren
02/06/2020

While many Dutch citizens will probably remember the 9th of March 2020 as the day when the habitual handshake was banned, I personally remember the date because of a word that suddenly began to sing around for a few days in most Dutch news media: the Sundanese (way of) greeting. Our royal couple Willem-Alexander and Máxima, on an official visit to Indonesia, were among the first whose Corona-etiquette was measured up: official protocol prescribed that they were not to shake hands. Instead – how fitting and culturally specific! – they would use the so-called Sundanese greeting (upward-pointing, pressed-together palms). And they did, gracefully, comfortably, and even light-heartedly, at that early moment of what was to become a crisis only later.

Old new rituals in times of COVID-19

I was delighted in more ways than one. There was the name, especially the spelling. Obviously the Dutch-colonial spelling (Soenda) had made way for the more international spelling (Sunda). But much more delight was in the graceful greeting itself, which exists in countless variations all over South- and Southeast Asia. The choice of this alternative to the handshake was self-evident. First, it is local, home-grown, age-old. Second, it is the best no-touch greeting gesture that could replace the entire array of the usual international salutation repertoire: it is respectful, graceful, reverential, and as light as air. Third, it is fine-grained in social nuance: the height of the clasped hands corresponds to the social stature of the person saluted. Fourth, it is perspiration-proof in sticky heat. Fifth, it is ideal when persons differ greatly in height and bulk and body odor. And sixth, the most elegant and truly enlightening characteristic is that one keeps one’s gaze eye to eye, soul to soul.

Greeting is a fine art. Greeting is also a minefield of embarrassment, eternal shame, and diplomatic scandals.

Although for some monocultural ignorami this obviously counted as ‘a new ritual’ it is ancient. Clasping the palms together solemnly in a respectful fashion, and holding them in front of the chest, testifies to Indonesia’s Hindu-Buddhist past. Appearing in intricate variations such as the sembah (Sunda), the sampeah (Cambodia) and the wai(Thailand) it has its origin in India’s Sanskrit culture, in which it is known as namaste, namaskār, praṇāma, or añjali mudrā, respectively. 

Greeting is a fine art. Greeting is also a minefield of embarrassment, eternal shame, and diplomatic scandals. People all around the world are now trading their handshakes for lower-risk gestures. This may not be easy on habitual huggers and shakers, but in some cultures graceful no-contact greetings already exist. In lieu of the germ-rich handshake alternative salutations are now being tried out, and when no-touch salutations become the norm there is a rich repertoire deeply rooted in traditions rather than in pandemic protocol. In days when our hands are tied – almost literally (as when we wear protective gloves) but certainly figuratively – we can kiss into the air, we can nod, bow, or make the ‘eyebrow flash’. Or we can teach our hands to make the peace sign, wave, or tip our (imaginary) hat. The Tibetan greeting of sticking out one’s tongue may not be taken seriously, though. Humans and cultures are complex, and the topic of greeting rituals reflects that. 

Unexpected liaisons

Yet, suddenly we see unexpected liaisons. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyu asked Israelis to do ‘namaste’ instead of shaking hands, possibly inspired by WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus who had recommended it on March 7. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi swelled with pride, and many were the self-declared knowers of Indian culture who predictably told journalists that the ‘namaste’ is already ‘as old as the Vedas’. 

Whereas Dutch Prime Minister Marc Rutte had jestingly suggested alternatives such as ‘voetzoenen’ (kissing someone’s feet) or ‘elleboogstoten’ (the elbow bump), I suggest we use this crisis to drop the habitual but clumsy Dutch ‘drieklapper’ (three kisses on alternating cheeks) for good, even in post-Corona times. And adopt – why not? – the Sundanese greeting, as a hommage to the rich traditions of our erstwhile colony, and to mark the year when the King for the first time ever expressed Dutch apologies to the Indonesian people for all the suffering inflicted on them in the years between 1945 and 1949.

Unfortunately, this is not so simple. At the very moment King Willem-Alexander stumbled over the  word ‘apologies’ in his speech, the FIN (Federatie Indische Nederlanders) declared itself unpleasantly surprised and deeply hurt: with such a ‘onesided’ gesture the King would have ignored the brutalities that they themselves, on their side, have had to suffer from the Indonesian side. I fear, alas, that old wounds run too deep for frivolously adopting the Sundanese greeting as a gesture of goodwill right now.

And there it was: the namasté

Yet, children are free to do so. The eleventh of May was the first day when Dutch pupils went back to primary school after eight weeks of ‘forced holidays’. In Nijmegen the children were offered a variety of fifteen salutations from a distance of 1.5 meter. Among the more predictable ‘cool’ gestures, there it was: the namasté!