Along These Lines
By NICK THOMAS
I’ve never been especially fond of shaking hands. As a child, I rated it on the same level of disdain as being kissed by smothering, elderly ladies with more facial hair than a Shih Tzu.
Today, I’m older and wiser, but more germophobic. So the thought of millions of bacteria and viruses hitching a ride on our skin during this human greeting ritual only makes it more hideous.
And when you really think about it, isn’t handshaking a rather odd custom?
Its origin is somewhat obscure. One plausible theory dates from Roman times, when men carried daggers and similar weaponry for protection as they traveled the long, lonely, roads.
If they came upon a stranger, it was not uncommon to reach for one’s dagger and brandish it as a warning to a potential assailant. Not a particularly friendly gesture perhaps, and even today not an entirely unknown practice in some urban areas.
However, once it was established that your new acquaintance was not planning to steal all your hard earned shekels, daggers would usually be re-sheathed. Open hands would be extended to demonstrate your benign intent, then gripped together in confirmation of new, best buddy status.
But it seems there could also be a biological component associated with greeting rituals, because they are not restricted to humans. Other primates, such as chimpanzees, greet each other by touching hands too, although they rarely reach for weapons or antiseptic hand wipes.
It turns out that handshaking is actually a somewhat simplistic form of greeting compared to the more elaborate behavior displayed by other animals. In fact, methods of expressing greetings in other species are as varied as the species themselves.
For instance, wild dolphins greet their pals using individual whistle signatures. Each has a unique whistle which the dolphins use to recognize one another. Of course, human males once widely mimicked this method to greet (or at least casually acknowledge the existence of) female members of their species. However, since the 1960s, many female humans have spurned this primitive greeting ritual as being offensive, and regard it as evidence of limited emotional evolution in their male counterparts.
In the case of large cats, such as lions, they generally greet each other by rubbing their heads and bodies against each other. Again, it would probably be unwise for humans to mimic such contact, at least during an initial meeting, since this gesture could possibly be misinterpreted.
Better to remain a little more aloof like domestic cats. They are far less demonstrative than their larger cousins, and merely put their tails straight up in the air when a friendly fellow feline approaches.
Elephants say “hi” by entwining their trunks; giraffes press their necks together; and horses rub noses. Wolves wave their tails and lick each other’s face, while penguins tap their bills together.
Even rats acknowledge their buddies. They will face each other, stand high on their hind legs, and emit a series of squeaks and squeals. Rats are quite smart, actually. They probably learned this form of greeting from humans who behave in much the same fashion when they themselves unexpectedly come upon a rodent in the pantry.
As uncomfortable as handshaking is for some of us humans, it’s certainly preferable to other greeting rituals used in the animal kingdom – canine tailgating obviously comes to mind. In fact, quite a few animal species are clearly in need of etiquette lessons when it comes to salutations.
For instance, lobsters greet by squirting urine on each other. It appears that when two boisterous males meet, their urine carries a record of who’s the boss and this helps to avoid fights. I expect conflict would likely escalate should humans adopt this crustacean welcoming gesture.
Along these lines, even mammals can demonstrate less than hygienic greetings. Hippos display aggressive and territorial characteristics by hurling excrement on rivals when they meet in the herd.
If this practice sounds somewhat familiar, it should. That’s because it is sometimes also observed in human society, particularly during a ritual known as “political campaigning.”
(Thomas’ features and columns have appeared in more than 200 magazines and newspapers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)Print