Christopher Elliott | Special to USA TODAY
Handshakes are out. So are hugs and kisses. But fist-bumps may be OK.
Travel customs have changed a lot during the pandemic. Now, with the busy spring and summer vacation season just ahead, prepare for more confusion among travelers.
I know because I’m confused. For example, in early 2020 when I visited Portugal, men greeted each other with a handshake and women with a kiss – first the right cheek, then the left. I’ll never forget meeting a woman in Porto. I reached out to shake her hand; she pulled me close and offered two quick air kisses, barely grazing my face.
I returned to Portugal recently. The awkward kiss wasn’t a problem anymore. Now, it’s a “prazer” (short for “pleasure to meet you”), with a tentative fist bump and maybe – just maybe – a handshake, followed by a squirt of antibacterial gel. What a difference a pandemic makes.
“The pandemic has impacted personal relationships for travelers,” says Mahmood Khan, a Virginia Tech hospitality and tourism professor. “Shaking hands, hugging, and kissing are customs that put many people in an awkward position.”
So what are those awkward positions and how do you navigate them? Which practices are still acceptable? Which ones aren’t? Well, for now, it’s all about social distancing taking precedence over customs. Even some traditions that seemed hard and fast just a few years ago.
“Societal norms and customs around greetings have been turned on their head,” says Warren Jaferian, the dean of international education at Endicott College.
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No kisses for the French
Emily Monaco, host of the “Navigating the French” podcast, says one of the casualties of the pandemic is la bise, the customary cheek kisses.
In the early days of lockdown, “posters plastered around the capital reminded locals, ‘In Paris, we greet one another without touching!’,” she recalls.
The bise had already fallen out of fashion during the Black Death (for obvious reasons) and in the 19th century when prudishness was in vogue. For now, Monaco explains, the replacement for both the bise and the handshake preferred between men is a far less elegant elbow or forearm bump popularized by French farmers.
So if you’re in Paris this summer, remember: pas de bisous!
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Hugs are out in Costa Rica
Franco Moiso, who lives in San Jose, Costa Rica, says things have changed in Central America, too.
“Here in Costa Rica, we usually meet and greet with a hug or a kiss on the cheek,” he says. “Nowadays you can only do this in your close bubbles, and nobody will even try it with a stranger. And even if they do, it will be completely OK to say no.”
Moiso, who publishes a food blog, says some locals still may use a traditional greeting inside their bubble. But it’s less common, and he doubts it will come back anytime soon.
That’s happening across the globe with other customs that involve physical contact, and observers like Moiso think it could be a while – maybe a year or two after the pandemic is over – before they return.
What about handshakes?
One of the most established customs, the handshake, is also in danger. In my travels, I’ve seen it replaced with a slight bow, a fist bump, an elbow bump or a nod. But you never know what’s appropriate. Adding to the mystery, you can’t discern intention if someone is wearing a face mask. If there’s a language barrier, it’s even more confusing.
That’s a gold mine for comedians but a minefield for anyone trying to do what’s socially acceptable.
“The moment of decision feels like a lifetime when you’re deciding how to be culturally appropriate,” says Endicott College’s Jaferian. “In a millisecond, you have to catch yourself, hesitate, discern what the other person is doing or expecting. Do you retract your outstretched hand and quickly offer them an elbow?”
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The handshake is particularly problematic, says Carla C. Bevins, who teaches business communications at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business.
“It’s such an ingrained part of our social system, especially in Western culture, and yet our customs have changed and we’ve found new ways to greet each other safely during the pandemic,” she says.
Bevins says other nonverbal gestures are taking the place of the handshake.
“First, we thought fist bumps or elbow bumps would be a good alternative,” she says. “However, if you are close enough to someone to fist or elbow bump, you’re close enough to transmit the COVID-19 virus. Instead, consider a small wave, nod, or smile – even if it’s just with the eyes.”
The changes may not be permanent
How long will the awkwardness last? Certainly, it’ll still be there if you take your summer vacation abroad this year. And it may last much longer – years, perhaps decades. But not forever.
“Humans always want the assurance of touch,” says Mitch Krayton of Krayton Travel. “Most of us miss the hugs when greeting friends.”
Already, he sees the signs of a rollback, at least in travel. More travelers now offer a hug or handshake once they know someone is fully vaccinated.
“I think Americans will abandon the fist bumps,” he adds. “As soon as it’s safe.”
What should you do?
So how do you greet someone on your next trip? Nick Leighton, etiquette expert and host of the weekly etiquette show “Were You Raised By Wolves?” offers this advice:
If you don’t know what to do, ask. When there’s uncertainty, check before grabbing someone’s hand – or offering a bise. “Should we shake? Should we not? I’m not sure what to do anymore!,” says Leighton. “And then everyone smiles and laughs and gives a wave and then moves on.”
Don’t assume anything. To declare the handshake obsolete would be premature. It’s still a universally-accepted greeting. “The jury’s still out on la bise, however,” he adds.
Safety first. “Etiquette is all about being mindful of other people,” he explains. “So when in doubt about someone’s feelings about proximity, always err on the side of giving someone a little extra space.” Also, don’t do anything that would put your safety in jeopardy.
Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can’t The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.