When my grandmother died a couple of years back, the mood was sombre. Death tends to do that I find. My extended family and I had gathered at the airport, ready to fly off for the funeral in Hong Kong—and lowen behold, my uncle was there. Considering I hadn’t seen this big, imposing, man-titted Malaysian dude in ages, I immediately went up to him for a friendly hullo. “Hey,” I said, bear-hugging the man. “How’ve you been?”
But instead of reciprocating the hug, he simply stood there, arms by his sides, glaring at me. There was no hugging back. Greeting this man was like embracing someone who’d recently suffered a terrible stroke; there just wasn’t any motion in the arms. After letting go awkwardly, we just stood there in mute silence for a while. Then I stared at the floor. “Men don’t hug,” he finally said, firmly. “Men shake hands.”
This was news to me. In my immediate family, my mother taught us always to hug. As a child, even if I ventured to the grocery store across the road, my mother would hug me—almost suffocate me—presumably, in case we got hit by a car, or hailed down with bullets. Because she grew up with death in her family, Mum expected death at every corner, and made us say daily goodbyes like they were our last. Admittedly, it’s a weird way to live.
Either way, I had always assumed hugs were the standard salutation in non-professional, non-work-related situations. But I’ve had enough experiences now—including the one with my uncle—to know that they’re not. Most of the times, I’ve simply misjudged the situation, and have gotten furrowed brows. That’s when I ask where the drinks are.
But there’s another problem, too: in Australia, we’ve yet to develop a shared, tacit, universal standard. My Spanish friends will kiss me on each cheek every time I see them. South Africans peck on the lips without fear of slipping in the tongue. Maoris bravely slather their excess noise sebum on one another’s faces with affection and aplomb. Even Letterman has introduced the talk-show standard: a manly back-slap hug combination: shake hands, slap back, touch the shoulders, but not the lower torso.
But there’s no standard here. As a result, we have a delightful moment of strange panic every time we see someone we don’t know well. Just after saying hello, we’re reduced to a primal moment: we lean in, watch closely other person for bodily cues and signals, weight one another up. It’s like we’re animals meeting for the first time in a David Attenborough documentary. Will they hug! Will they kiss! Will they attack! Not even we know what’s going to happen next. It’s riveting.
According to my local etiquette expert, there are no hard and fast rules. She does insist it’s important not to run screaming towards long-lost family members at funerals expressing how great it is to see one another. (Apparently this is common.) In standard social occasions, though, she says there are two things we should keep in mind. One: it’s always appropriate to shake hands. Unless you have some excess sweat problem, extend the hand. Two: if you see the other person hesitating, take initiative and decide on the greeting. Mentally prepare the other person for your physical attack.
No one wants to offer their outstretched hand, only to find it firmly wedged in the matronly jelly bosom of a woman expecting a hug. It’s not necessary. So the next time I see my uncle, I’m going to take the initiative again. It’s etiquette, after all. But I’m still weighing up what will be appropriate. Offering arms for a hug is off limits, but offering my hand for a handshake is so formal, isn’t it? Perhaps I will offer him a fist. In the face. Men don’t hug, apparently. But I know they fight.