Meeting men used to be so easy. I don’t mean that in a Grindr sort of way. I just mean that when a chap bumped into a chap, you knew what to do. Stick out your paw and shake his hand and everyone could move on. Now, though, the everyday occurrence of being friendly to a fellow male is a minefield of potential slights. And it is all the fault of the man-hug.
The handshake, once such a simple act of courtesy, now seems too stiff, too formal, too English. It has become absurd to shake hands with your father, or your best friend. You might as well tell him you don’t like him. Something more is required — a back slap or an arm squeeze, perhaps even a man-hug. But with any less an acquaintance, this intimacy is ridiculous. It feels bogus, like when blokes used to call each other ‘mate’ (thankfully now a fading ritual).
As Grayson Perry identified in his book The Descent of Man, masculinity has been in crisis for years. Now we don’t even know how to say hello. I realised this the other day when a well-known TV personality came for a drink. He is an old friend of my wife but I had never met him before. When he reached our flat I got in a muddle and leaned in for a kiss. I don’t really know why, except that I felt I knew him from watching telly, and because he had just given my wife an effusive kiss; in my confusion, I thought this was the protocol. It was not, and we managed a last-minute swerve and a handshake.
On most other occasions, I am not friendly enough. I have been spending some time in Italy, where it is normal for Florentine men to peck each other on the cheek. Several times I have caught myself recoiling — even ducking — before realising what was going on. Similar embarrassments occur back home, usually when meeting someone under 30. That generation of millennials grew up watching Skins and Glee. They can’t believe anyone could be so pompous as to shake hands. And if you try, they look at you with bemusement or simply wave your hand aside and pull you in for a hug.
So now, whenever you meet anyone, you have to make a quick mental calculation of the following factors: their age, how well you know them, how important they are and whether there’s any chance that you might have BO. A judgment is required before you’ve even said hello. So much for the level playing field of the hug.
It is not that I don’t like hugging. I do. But I hate an awkward hug. It is worse than no hug at all. If it’s going to happen, you want to get it right, though really I would rather not have to think about it.
Champions of the man-hug — who include politicians, sportsmen, gap-year students and reality TV stars — will claim that it is good to be in touch with your emotions. It shows we are more evolved. But they do not consider the capacity for hugs to highlight inequality. I am about 5ft 10in — not short, but not tall. Many men these days are way over six foot, and there’s nothing weirder than clutching their midriffs as they embrace your shoulders. It makes you feel Lilliputian.
The same is true when it comes to the horizontally generous. I am of normal girth, but in the context of someone bigger, I feel like a child at Disneyland or someone on Noel’s House Party trying to get their arms round Mr Blobby.
As with most things, I blame Tony Blair. In his rush to do away with the stuffy values of the past, he failed to account for the usefulness of time-tested habits. Just like when Saddam was toppled, it’s no good if there’s no plan B to fill the void.
It is all much easier for women. For them, it’s kisses all the way, be it with best friends or strangers. And when they meet men, it’s like dancing — they simply let the fellow lead. Personally, I would bring back handshaking here too. It can’t be pleasant for women to have so many faces pressed into theirs, with all those beards and the potential for stubble rash and accompanying hygiene hazards.
Someone needs to lay down the rules on male greetings once and for all. My proposal would be to scrap all man-hugging except with family members, and bring back the quick and friendly handshake. No arm patting or vertically placed hands, unless you’re actually a rapper. Until then, every day will be fraught with the possibility of being made to feel either uptight or overfamiliar. My own strategy, when I can manage it, is a jaunty little wave. A fellow I know bows his head and does a Buddhist-style Namaste with his hands.
One thing’s for sure: it’s time we ended the ghastly dance of uncertainty. This is a call to arms. Or rather, hands. Men, get a grip.
Liz Brewer and Cosmo Landesman discuss handshakes and hugs on The Spectator Podcast.