Matthew Bell

Arms and the man

Saying hello to another chap used to be easy. Now it’s a minefield of potential embarrassment

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.

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