Coronavirus is changing the way the world says “hello”

Keep calm, wave, and carry on.
Keep calm, wave, and carry on.
Image: Getty Images
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Some people around the world shake hands. Some hug. Some rub their noses together. And some—many in fact—kiss on the cheek. But now, as Covid-19 spreads around the globe, people are rethinking how they say hello.

That’s exactly what Germany’s interior minister did today—to much laughter—when he declined to shake chancellor Angela Merkel’s hand.

The WHO recommends a few protective measures to avoid spreading the coronavirus. That includes frequent and thorough hand-washing, social distancing (staying at least a meter, or 3 feet from anyone who appears sick), and not touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.

Some countries have gotten a bit more culturally specific. The United Arab Emirates on Jan. 31 called on residents to suspend nose-to-nose greetings—a traditional way for men in the Arabian Peninsula to say hello.

In Egypt, a country with a reputation for comedy in the Arab world, a popular rhyme has emerged: “مش هنسلم، مش هنبوس، مش هننشر الفيروس” (“We won’t shake hands, we won’t kiss, we won’t spread the virus”). Cheek kissing is common between men (and often between men and women) in the country and across the rest of the region.

In Iran, where the outbreak has killed the largest number of people outside China, one popular video on social media shows men in surgical masks tapping feet instead of kissing to avoid unnecessary contact. Officials have also urged against kissing religious shrines, even though some worshippers have ignored the warnings.

In large parts of Europe, it’s similarly common for people to greet each other with a kiss on the cheek. France’s health minister recently warned against kissing, or la bise, as the French call it. Switzerland’s health minister has suggested dropping the cultural practice as well.

Both handshakes and kissing are used across Asia, including Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country. Indonesian authorities are recommending a namaste-style greeting. Nearby Singapore is also circulating notices to encourage waving, elbow-tapping, and the namaste as more germ-free alternatives.