Wednesday, 26 March 2014


Supplementary material

When greeting someone by raising a hand to the brow, we imitate someone removing their hat. That we no longer habitually wear hats didn't affect the gesture, and it persists as a cultural artifact (just as the hair on our arms rise when we're cold, in a futile attempt to form an insulating layer of pilosity. The poor guys don't realize that they're far too few to do a good job of it, and have probably been for millions of years. Stupid hair. No wonder they keep growing on our chin while deserting our scalp).

What's the origin of the fingers-to-brow salute? Some say that by removing one's hat, one shows respect by exposing one's entire head. "Here's my face. I'm not hiding anything from you". Other, more fanciful explanations, include one that harks back to the middle ages and to knights who would raise their visor to make eye contact. The problem I have with that is that helms with visors were not that frequent in western history, and that knights were even less so. Sure, the Hoi polloi often like to imitate aristocracy, but it seems to me that such a widespread custom is more likely to have had a fairly uncomplicated origin. And hats were, by and large, pretty much ubiquitous at one time.

An even more universal form of greeting is the handshake. It goes so far back that it would be difficult to say how it originated. Some suppose that the gesture allows us to show we're not carrying a weapon. Fair enough, symbolically speaking, but if that were the whole of the story I would have expected handshakes to involve both hands; for as he's distracting you with one empty hand, who knows what the other guy is hiding behind his back? The bastard!

It's a bit the same thing with the clinking of glasses during a toast. Popular wisdom has it that the tradition goes back to the middle ages (again!) and to the supposed habit (quite exaggerated, methinks) of poisoning one's drinking buddy. By clinking glasses, wine drops from one glass would end up in the other, thus ensuring that no one would try to spike his vis-à-vis's drink for fear of getting poisoned as well. It's a nice story, but as with Rudyard Kipling's Just so stories, the explanation raises more problems than it solves. To wit: for any amount of liquid to be exchanged between two glasses, they must be very, very full; that's a pretty good way to make sure there will be wine stains on the tablecloth. Normally, people will clink glasses very lightly so as to avoid making a mess, and also to avoid breaking the glasses. That's particularly obvious when beer glasses are involved: most people will clink them from the bottom, fat and sturdy, rather than the thin and fragile top, which clearly does not favour the exchange of beer, poisoned or not. (I once saw friends clinking their glass mugs very forcefully, but the only mix produced was on the floor, amid the shattered glass pieces). Furthermore, even if one managed to get a few drops from one glass to the other, the poison would have to be a pretty powerful one to have an effect on the poisoner in such small quantities. Especially if the nefarious host is Mithridates VI.

Etiquette defines proper social behaviour and will naturally evolve and adapt to new societal developments (including technological ones). It is for example quite inappropriate to make a phone call to someone in the middle of the night, something we all probably realize without having to be told. There are also spontaneously developing codes of behaviour: I doubt very much that anyone ever imposed the rules for proper urinal selection in the men's bathroom, but every gentleman is probably instinctively aware of them.

Switching off one's cell phone (or putting it in vibration mode) is also appropriate on an important date or at a funeral. It could even be that some future day, we will express our sympathies by shaking slightly, imitating a vibrating cell phone; but since by then phones will have been replaced by some other gadget, nobody will know whence the gesture came from. It may even be hypothesized that it goes back to the middle ages, when people had to huddle for warmth at night, and when losing a family member meant colder nights ahead.

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