Greetings from a New Generation

How do the rituals of greeting and parting work in today’s America, and how have they changed over time?

How many gestures of greeting, parting, or general acknowledgment have been in common usage at some point in American history? I can think of shaking hands, waving, kissing (on the mouth, cheek, or hand), hugging, saluting, curtsying, bowing, and nodding one’s head. Am I missing any? There are plenty of other gestures we make towards or with other people, such as high-fiving and fist-bumping, but I don’t know that they are or ever have been in general use as part of greeting or parting rituals.

It’s not surprising that these rituals have changed over time, or even that some gestures once considered intimate have become unmarked in more contexts. After all, a general trend over the past century at least has the informal becoming the norm and the formal becoming the antiquated. Until President Kennedy’s day, men wore hats whenever they left the house. It is no longer only close friends who call each other by their first names; even telemarketers do today, as my father often complains. Elaborate complimentary closes once included at the bottom of letters, like “Your servant” and “Yours truly,” now seem a bit stilted compared with the more unmarked “Sincerely” or even “Love,” which would once have been regarded as too familiar. These are just a few examples of what I’d call the formality treadmill, by analogy with Steven Pinker’s euphemism treadmill.

What stands out most to me, after an evening of conversation with my parents about the changes in greetings and partings over time, is the loss of differentiation by gender. In an earlier generation, men greeted each other by shaking hands, and people greeted the opposite gender with a kiss on one cheek. Women usually greeted each other with either a kiss or a hug. Today, as the New York Times informs us, hugging is the greeting of choice for many young people. Speaking from my own experience as a young person, when seeing someone after or before an absence, or if I’m especially close with them or don’t often see them, I use a handshake or a hug. Crucially, I don’t think I’ve ever used a kiss on the cheek as a greeting with any other American of my generation, male or female, and I distribute hugs and handshakes equally between genders.

In other words, it seems that gender has disappeared entirely from American greeting and parting rituals over the past few decades. I regard this as an encouraging development. But what do you think? What gestures do you use to say hello and goodbye, in particular when the greeting or parting is significant enough to warrant a ceremony—such as before or after a long absence? If you do leave a comment, please include your generation. Thugout readers, please comment on the Empire Avenue post so all the comments can be in one place.

Cross-posted from Empire Avenue.

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One Response to “Greetings from a New Generation”

  1. I’m a 20-year-old male. I would venture a guess that for most males of my generation, it is still prevalent to distribute handshakes more often to men than to women and hugs more often to women than to men. In fact, I’d say its rare that I shake a woman’s hand unless I have just met her. But this is based far more on my own experience than on my observations of others.

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