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Greetings between humans are many and varied. Arabs may hug like bears. The French might kiss a cheek. In the Andaman Islands, weeping is not uncommon. The ancient Egyptian cowered, while the knights of medieval England went to one knee. For the Japanese, etiquette demands the bow. Despite the disparity, one of the most common greetings for all humans is the handshake.
All forms of greetings have their origins in antiquity. Grasping hands or forearms was for Greeks, Romans and even ancient Hindus a means of showing friendship or partnership. The joining of hands was a symbolic act which sealed a pact or confirmed a peace. Dextram dare, for the Roman, was a pledge of faith. It means to give the right hand.
If the handshake is a symbolic act, what lies beyond the symbol? Why is the right hand given, and not the left? And what is the relationship between the grasping of hands, the embrace, the kiss?
90% of all people everywhere are right handed.1 It becomes the knife hand, the spear hand, the sword hand. Power resides in that right hand. Though "handedness" is still a controversial subject scientifically2, traditionally the right hand was considered the magical or lucky side. Conversely, left handers were looked upon as odd. Southpaws are tagged with nicknames, and the origin of our word sinister comes from the Latin meaning to the left. They bump elbows when they eat, and they can never find a decent set of golf clubs. Mea dextra, by my right hand, vowed the gladiator as to battle he went. And so today all men and women reach out with the "right" hand when they meet.
Ma-ai, in Japanese, means distancing, keeping the correct spacing between oneself and one's opponent. The opponent, the stranger, must be kept at a safe distance until intent can be discerned. In general, that safe distance was at least an arm's length. If the opponent had a weapon, the distance was increased proportionately.
We feel uncomfortable with people who "get in our space" or "get in our face"; but friends are invited inside an arm's length by an extended hand. In effect, by offering a hand we make ourselves vulnerable, we trust. By offering the hand, we open the heart.
What then of the embrace, the kiss? At each point from hand to lips more is offered, and the more vulnerable we become. With the kiss, such a casual greeting in today's world, a person enters what Chinese martial artists call the death ground.3 In the streets of San Francisco, no one gives it a second thought. The origin and symbolism---the reality?--- of these greetings, if known at all, apparently do not concern us. The need for such wariness in today's world seems, for the most part, slightly ridiculous. And yet ...
Grammar Note: The phrase "get in our face"; appears in the next to last paragraph. This note turns on the position of the semi-colon in relation to the quotation marks. American usage would have the punctuation inside the quotation marks. I prefer British usage, and place the semi-colon (or comma) outside the quotation marks. After all, the punctuation is distinct from the quote, and its position should reflect this.
3 Griffith, Samuel (translator), Sun Tzu The Art of War (Oxford Univ. Press, London), 131.