Throughout all cultures of the world, people have unique physical ways of greeting people. The traditional Maori greeting, the hongi is performed by two people pressing their noses together; some include, at the same time, the touching of foreheads. The greeting is used at traditional meetings among Maori people, and at major ceremonies. In the hongi, the ha or breath of life, is exchanged in a symbolic show of unity. Through the exchange of this greeting, manuhiri, visitors, blend with tangata whenua, the people of the land, and establish a connection.
The Hindu greeting of namaste, which is accompanied by placing one’s palms together as if in prayer, fingers pointed upwards and drawing the hands to the heart. Namaste, sometimes pronounced namaskar, means “I bow to the divine in you” in Hindi. In India, as well as in Bangladesh, Nepal, Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia, the greeting is used to welcome guests, acknowledge strangers and say goodbye. The actual motion that accompanies the word namaste is called anjali mudra. Anjali means offering. It’s a way to acknowledge that the divinity in me honours and sees the divinity in you.
The Hawaiian shaka greeting, more commonly known as the “hang loose” gesture among surfers, which involves three middle fingers folded down and the subsequent wave of the hand while the pinky and thumb are pointed upward. Its origins are debated, but many indigenous Hawaiian’s flash it as a way to say “Hey!” or “Cool!” While seemingly simple, the gesture isn’t entirely casual, as it has long been a sign of respect and affection.
The Tibetan greeting of poking out one’s tongue is attributed to a wicked king who was known for having a black tongue. It began with monks, who would stick out their tongues to show that they came in peace while mocking the cruel 9th-century king named Lang Darma. Needless to say, the greeting caught on.
There’s something kind of nice about applause as part of a hello. In Zimbabwe, the clapping of hands comes after people clap in a call and answer style—the first person claps once, and the second person twice, in response. How you slap the palms together is important to the custom. Men clap with fingers and palms aligned, and women with their hands at an angle. In northern Mozambique, people also clap, but three times before they say “moni” or hello.
Sniffing Faces, yes there’s nothing quite like the smell of someone you love or someone you’ve just met. In Greenland, kunik, the Inuit tradition of placing your nose and upper lip against someone’s cheek or forehead and sniffing, is limited to very close relationships. But on the South Pacific island of Tuvalu, pressing cheeks together and taking a deep breath is still part of a traditional Polynesian welcome for visitors.
In many European countries it is customary to kiss people, male or female, two or three times on the cheek. Some years ago, when travelling through Poland to meet my wife’s relatives, her cousin in his early twenties lent forward and kissed me on the cheek three times in a gesture of farewell. It all happened so fast, but seemed quite a natural thing for him to do. Initially I was quite surprised, however it was so genuine that I felt honoured and connected as an honorary Pole!
In these days of social distancing and strict hygiene measures people are searching for non-contact greetings, especially to replace the handshake. Touching elbows has become a common greeting, but I’m not sure that this is ideal as we are also encouraged to sneeze and cough into our elbow. Touching toes is another sign of acknowledgement as is the air-fist-pump or air-high-five.
According to the acclaimed Disney movie, Donald Duck in Mathmagicland, one of my all-time favourite movies, the Secret Society of Pythagoreans greeted each other by extending their right arm towards their fellow Pythagorean with their hand turned vertical. The palm was tattooed with a pentagram, a magical shape abounding with mathematical mysteries including the Fibonacci Spiral and Golden Ratio. Wow!
While some people continue with tradition and practices that span hundreds of years, one option for non-physical contact that hits closer to home is the Vulcan salute: the hand gesture popularised by Star Trek. For decades, millions of fans of the TV series have used this gesture, which consists of raising one’s hand, with space between the middle and ring fingers, and the index finger and the thumb. As it turns out, the inspiration for that gesture stems from Judaism. Specifically, when a person makes that gesture, it is in the shape of the Hebrew letter “shin,” which represents one of the first letters of God’s name.
For many though, the Vulcan salute is too difficult to master. A more manageable alien salute is the Thermian salute, from the most excellent movie called Galaxy Quest starring Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver and Allan Rickman. The Thermians are a fairly strong, highly intelligent species of squid-like cephalopods. However, Thermians take on human appearance to be more like their heroes of the Galaxy Quest team. The Thermian salute is a sign of respect and solidarity and is used when greeting a friend or someone of importance. It is performed by placing a clenched fist across the chest in a peaceful but firm manner while looking eye-to-eye.
Handshakes and hugs are so ingrained in our culture, a gesture that is nearly akin to an automatic reflex, that it seems cold, if not downright hostile to withhold the gesture, especially in encounters with relatives, friends and even colleagues. The coronavirus pandemic has compelled public health authorities to seriously suggest forms of greeting that avoid contact. While I think the traditional handshake is still the most powerful form of greeting, until the social distancing requirements are sufficiently relaxed, the Thermian salute is a great alternative.
When presenting the LIFE Leaders badges this week, students were very respectful and dignified as they accepted their badge with a firm Thermian salute. Congratulations to all our student leaders for the wonderful job and we wish you well for the remainder of the year.