Touching on the British greeting

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 March, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 March, 1995, 12:00am

THE stiff upper lip and the formal handshake used to be about the only thing tactile about the British in public. Now every one of those lips is puckered up as if overdosed on collagen for the ubiquitous kiss of greeting and we hug and slap each other on the back sufficiently to make an Ivy League baseball team wince.

About the only symptom we haven't borrowed from the Americans is that dreadful whooping noise they make when things are going well. For small graces be thankful.

Things have not gone quite as far as to make the behaviour of one Scottish reporter for a Hong Kong newspaper here the norm. He greeted a senior Hong Kong Chinese official at a recent party with a huge slurping kiss on the cheeks, but he was well oiled at the time and that is another story.

There is no point in denying there is a lot more public kissing and hugging going on here now as elsewhere. So much so that pupils at a Scottish boarding school were warned by their headmaster this week that any of the opposite sex caught within six inches of each other will be disciplined.

The Dollar Academy, near Perth, brought in the rule because headmaster John Robertson was angered at seeing his pupils kissing and cuddling in the street.

In this context it was undoubtedly generous of the Green Party to give us all a simple lesson in the politically correct way of behaving towards each other in a tactile sense this week in a guide on the politically correct way to hug.

For those of you who did not attend the British Green Party's conference be assured that outside the confines of this column the party is bringing out a pamphlet showing the stance to be taken, a child's guide on how not to offend a person of the opposite sex you wish to greet with affection.

The party regards the full frontal embrace as threatening and sexually predatory.

So this is how you hug in the politically correct manner: the first touch should be to the other person's shoulders or the middle of the back, not to their waist, which is too sexual, or to the head, which might be seen as patronising.

Follow this through with an arm around the shoulders applied from one side coupled with a light but affectionate squeeze. The grand finale comes in an embrace from the front with arms around shoulders like a pair of Greek dancers. Chests, or more obviously breasts, should not touch.

The fact that it was the highly marginalised Greens bringing out this piece of advice no doubt caused huge guffaws but at least it was an attempt to address a trend. Everyone is getting more familiar and the ground rules of how to address those we meet or work with have become muddied.

Take social kisses for instance. There is the question of who on the opposite sex is willing to accept it, where and how. Do you kiss someone once on each cheek as in the traditional Gallic manner or will a simple peck on one cheek suffice? Should the lips touch the cheek, or faces merely brush together accompanied by that kissing noise. Do you do it to those older than you? I haven't a clue.

Then we have the use of first names. Salesmen, receptionists, telephone workers regularly introduce themselves via their first name, it is part of the quality management ethos meant to give you, their customer, someone you can identify on the phone.

But use of the first name immediately takes away any sting you might wish to deliver if the call is less than friendly. Your first line of defence has gone.

MY children address their teachers as Miss This, Mrs That and I have not heard of anyone doing otherwise here. But the Danish au pair was horrified; she had come up through a school system where children routinely addressed their teachers by their first names and could see nothing wrong with it.

For my money I like the familiar society where the barriers which so often defend the indefensible are lowered, where the pompous are stripped of their elitism.

But at the far end of this logic we end up with the type of insincerity summed up by the dreadful American 'Have a Nice Day' or whatever they say now, the false friendliness which insists you just 'enjoy'. Enjoy what for goodness sake?