A colleague returned from a holiday recently and told me a lovely story about the French.
In France, when a child visits a friend’s home, they seek out the Mother and Father to introduce themselves: a handshake for the Dad, a kiss on both cheeks of the Mum. It’s the first thing they do and they do it every time – a custom.
This was the Bordeaux countryside, of course – perhaps it’s different in the troubled suburbs of Paris, perhaps it’s not – but it did make me realise this: the average French child is more comfortable with introductions and greetings than most of the adult population of England (well, the males at least).
The issue of awkward greetings was also raised at Hay Festival this summer, when the social anthropologist Kate Fox argued that every nation except England had developed a standardized ritual for such moments, be it the Maori nose press, the French with their doubles kisses or the Americans, who hoop, holler and smack each other twice on the ass (or something).
A painful thought, but compared to the rest of the world, we’re hopeless at this game. Every time we’re introduced to a friend of a friend, or a friend’s girlfriend, or a friend’s sister – basically anyone not sat across from us in a meeting room – we fall to pieces.
It’s the longest second in the average Englishman’s day, that gnawing out-of-body moment when we know some sort of tactile behaviour is expected of us but we can’t decide which one is appropriate.
The options flash through our minds, like panels on an unwinnable slot machine: handshake (too formal!), hug (how long for?!), kiss on one cheek (what if they expect two?) or kiss on both cheeks (what if they expect one?).
What usually happens is that we attempt some grotesque combination of all four, somehow managing to come off as awkward and aloof even as we’re dangerously invading someone’s personal space, departing with a mouthful of neck / hair / ear for our troubles. Both parties then swap a self-loathing ‘oops’, mumble goodbye a further five or six times then shuffle off in mutual disgust.
It is, of course, part of our birthright, this terminal sense of social awkwardness – so ingrained in our national character it has become, to an extent, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Misanthropy traces a line through decades of our favourite comedies, from Fawlty Towers to The Office. The latter, one of the most successful cultural exports in modern British history, is arguably more about the physical and mental agony of being English in a social setting than it is about anything else.
Ms Fox, who recently updated her (excellent) book Watching the English: the Hidden Rules of English Behaviour, is English, but has lived in the US, France and Ireland, so is well placed to reflect on our peculiar inadequacies.
Of the many astute passages in the book, one about the weather particularly rings true. English people don’t moan about the weather all the time because we’re obsessed with meteorology, we use it as a cover to admit we want to talk to one another.
When someone says to you “horrible day, isn’t it?”, they’re not actually asking for an opinion, they’re trying to establish a point of agreement and experience a moment of human connection. That’s why you instinctively reply “yes it is, isn’t it?”, and never “actually, I disagree, I think this weather is perfectly fine”, which would be an act of rudeness roughly as astonishing as doing a Michael Jackson crotch-grab and moon walking away from them without saying a word.
Fox’s proposed solution to the English greeting problem is to revive a lost term: ‘how do you do’. The ‘how do you do’ – or HDYD – was deployed by Englishmen for centuries to paper over all sorts of social cracks, presumably combined with some sort of brisk bow and handshake combo.
Great for the days of top hats and stiff lips, but I’m not convinced HDYD can still cut the mustard in a modern world where emotions, confidences and genitals are shared so freely across the digital world.
Rather, we need a new standard, a move that soothes our innate conservatism while bringing us in line with the touchy-feely world in our iPhones. And I think I know the solution.
Some men in this country have developed what you might call the ‘one kiss arm pat’ (OKAP). The OKAP involves a kiss on one cheek rounded off with a brief cupping of the outside of the arm. It’s half a double kiss, half a hug and not a million miles from that most reassuring of actions, the handshake. In other words, the perfect English compromise.
You see the OKAP happening more and more, at housewarming parties and after work drinks across the land. But as with all customs, it will need to be cultivated over time.
That’s why I suggest we teach it in schools at the earliest possible age, so our own kids can visit each other with the same nonchalance as their French counterparts. Not to mention grow up to be adults who can get through an introduction without at any stage wanting to throw themselves under a bus.