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Social greetings to be changed … forever?

We are all accustomed to greeting our friends, colleagues and loved-ones with some form of physical greeting, be it a hug, kiss or handshake. With the rules around physical distancing having coming in to play, it begs the questions whether new ways of greeting will gain popularity and become the new norm.

As instances of not just COVID-19 but also colds and flus are notably on the downward trend, health experts are attributing these wins to social distancing and practicing better hygiene with more frequent hand washing (source).

While it’s all very well to tell people not to do something, we are talking about ceasing millenia of tradition with respect to gestures. It will take a real effort to break the handshake habit but in an age where good hygiene practises can literally be the difference between life and death, even Australia’s top doctor is saying the virus could change human behaviour for good, stating that “There are some things we’ll do differently, always” (source).

This is a sentiment that echoes all over world as White House health advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci stating in early April “I don’t think we should ever shake hands ever again, to be honest with you.” (source) and Malaysia’s Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin suggesting to his citizens that “Maybe we should just bow now as a sign of respect. This is the new normal.” (source)

Given the uncertainty, levels of stress and anxiety that many Australians are feeling around the COVID-19 pandemic, changing our usual habits presents a novel challenge. Around the world, cultures are struggling to change their greeting habits. In France, more than 91% are still greeting their friends and family with ‘la bise’ or French kisses (source).

Here are some simple steps to healthy habit-formation:

Choose what new greeting you want to take on. Is it an elbow-bump? Toe-tap? Or a wave from afar? Choose one greeting and work on changing this instead of taking on too many at once.

  • Explain to others before you meet them (if it is a planned meeting) or when you approach them that you would prefer to not shake hands or hug and what your preferred greeting is
  • Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. The common myth of ‘it takes 21 days to break a habit’ is untrue. Research actually states that it can take up to 66 days (source) from the day you try to make a new habit, for it to stick;
  • Don’t forget that we are all in the same boat - Your insistence on an elbow-bump, toe-tap, or wave reinforces others to do it too.
  • Mix it up with people you know – each person you catch up with may have their own preferred greeting and you can start a new tradition with them.

It will be interesting to see societal behavioural changes in the coming months as they evolve throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. For the time being, we need to be exceptionally aware of our contact with others. However, this is an opportunity to further develop our non-physical methods of communication with each-other and take advantage of technology that will boost our connectedness and alleviate feelings of isolation, bringing us closer together.