What accounts for the quirky variety of first encounters?
A career diplomat and consultant to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Scott has had many occasions to observe the diverse ways that individuals greet one another: handshakes or bows, one kiss or two (or sometimes three), hugs or pats on the back, among a host of other customs. Buoyed by curiosity, the author set out to investigate the origin, practice, and meaning of greetings, guessing that “these first moments of interaction” could serve “as a window into different cultures, maybe even our species as a whole.” In this delightful, sometimes-provocative literary debut, he draws on talks with experts, including sociologists, anthropologists, neuroscientists, primatologists, evolutionary psychologists, body-language experts, and ethnographers; readings across disciplines; and his own research. As British researcher Adam Kendon explained, “the essential point of greetings is to negotiate a basic social problem: how to move into each other’s presence and initiate interaction.” The moment of physical contact, he added, is the end of a complex process that begins with sighting, orientation, making eye contact, and possibly a smile or wave. The handshake, Scott learned, may have originated “as means of demonstrating that we weren’t armed,” leaving him to wonder why the ritual persisted and what interactions occurred before humans carried weapons. How did greetings such as fist-bumping, cheek-slapping, and, he discovered to his amusement, genital grabbing, evolve and spread? Jane Goodall persuaded him that human behavior has roots among primates in rituals that express and maintain bonds. Greetings “provide a quick signal of our intentions” and also “signal our status and show that we want to get along.” Admitting to feeling awkward when he first meets someone, Scott was consoled to learn that many others find greetings “fraught with confusion and embarrassment.” He offers six common-sensical suggestions for assuaging nervousness: avoid trying too hard to emulate another culture’s practices, for example, but keep open to signals. Above all, “don’t worry if it goes wrong.”
A fresh, spirited look at cultural differences.