Culture Shake

Americans find certain things familiar on these shores to be challenged overseas: love for peanut butter, Republican politics, and particularly the good old American handshake. A report from abroad on the challenge of kissing Margaret Thatcher.

Despite having lived and worked in Europe for several years, I still am surprised how seldom I shake hands. Especially in Britain, where I’ve been for the past two years, the handshake is regarded as a rather formal gesture. It may be used on meeting someone for the first time or while completing a business transaction, but it rarely transpires casually between friends, and I find I almost never shake women’s hands. Instead, friends and acquaintances of opposite sex exchange kisses on one or both cheeks—I never really know which, myself—while British men, in rare transports of fraternity, will clasp my arm or shoulder at best.

Growing up in Indiana during the ‘80s, I had my hand nearly wrung off. Getting in a friend’s car, getting out of the car, meeting after any significant interval of separation, in congratulation and in condolence, my hand was clasped and bobbed vigorously. A firm handshake implied strong character. Men, women, boys, girls, teachers, often my dad and always my friends’ parents, fellow passengers on airplanes (but not Greyhound buses—there are limits to everything), and even shop assistants of particular helpfulness. Yet these handshakes were not obligatory, de rigueur, what the English would dismissively call “the done thing.” They were simply how civilized people sincerely expressed respect and affection for one another. It was a kind of socio-emotional currency.

In Britain, I feel like I’m walking around with sawbucks in my pockets. Not knowing which or how many cheeks to kiss, or whether to plant my kisses firmly and wetly on the skin or simply make sounds in the air, not knowing how to stand or whether to embrace or even shake hands in mid-kiss—this is all akin to not knowing the language or finding the wrong currency in my pocket. Physically, I find that exchanging kisses plays me false; it forces me into a brief facial intimacy which may not—usually does not—correspond to my actual daily relations with the other person. If I met Margaret Thatcher at a party I would be forced to bury my antagonism momentarily while plunging my nose into her abundant hair—something I am emphatically unenthusiastic about. If, while withdrawing my lips from her cheek, I were to demand that she justify corrosive statements made and brutal acts perpetrated during her time in office, I would feel more than hypocritical.

Fortunately, Mrs. Thatcher is not the only woman in England. Conversely, if we looked one another in the eye while shaking hands, we might establish a respectful rapport within which we might reasonably discuss our differences, not too heatedly. (Actually, I’m probably not up for that.) The handshake is not without intimacy. Indeed, a long look deep in her eyes might tell me all I need to know; I might find there the rapaciousness I expect, but I might see instead the anxiety of a woman ruler in a man’s world, or the selflessness of a true public servant, however misguided; I might, in that moment, come to understand Mrs. Thatcher as a fellow human much more than I do now—which, if it is saying little, is saying more than nothing.

The intimacy of exchanging kisses on the cheek, on the other hand, is semi-sexual. With my lips just millimeters from her ear, her neck, her lips, it cannot be otherwise. This is not so much revolting as simply false. I am not trying to sleep with Margaret Thatcher—why this meaningless pass at bodily intimacy? Why not look one another in the eye? It teaches me only the size of her pores, the dimensions of her earlobe, the depth of her makeup, and the freshness of her hair dye. None of these things aid me in judging her character, though I may discern her taste in cosmetics.

Fortunately, Mrs. Thatcher is not the only woman in England. Mostly I get through the moments of greeting and parting with minimal embarrassment. The women I meet are charming and clever and have noses and hair and nose hairs somewhat less prominent than Mrs. Thatcher’s.

Which, if not saying much, is saying more than nothing.