Monday 28 September, 2020

A cross-cultural look at how the elbow bump has taken over in Cayman

With the economic and health-related impacts of coronavirus being documented almost by the second, the enormous social ramifications have understandably taken somewhat of a backseat.

But this does not mean that the social impacts of the virus are any less significant.

Social distancing has created 3-foot imaginary boundaries between people, while those who venture out in public tell funny stories of going blue in the face while suppressing their coughs and sneezes... But most frustrating for me is that our beloved ways of physically connecting with each other have been sorely impacted, with the handshake greeting taking a major hit.

Let us explore the impact of COVID-19 on the tradition of handshake that dates all the way back to the 5th century BC in Greece. The threat of the coronavirus pandemic to a thousands-of-years-old tradition is not surprising when considering that, according to scientists, more bacteria is transferred through a handshake than via any other greeting.

Research has even found that more germs are spread by shaking hands than kissing, and research from Aberystwth University has found that a handshake can transfer 10 times more bacteria than a fist bump. 

While social media is littered with comedic videos of people doing invisible handshakes or knocking shoes, the answer for most is the elbow bump. No hand to hand contact means no germs - and no risk.

It is estimated that the average person will shake about 15,000 hands in their lifetime... Could coronavirus threaten how we greet each other now and possibly forever?

And given the diversity of Cayman, shouldn't we consider that the common Western-style handshake greeting is not the only one that might be at risk on these islands? I can’t help but imagine whether the elbow bump will replace other greetings that I receive from friends of different cultures who reside here.

For my American, English and European friends who grab my hand firmly and shake vigorously, the elbow bump is an easy transition. We can go in low and fast just like a regular handshake, and a clash in elbows doesn't take away from the assertiveness of being firm and vigorous.

For mi amigos from Latin America, our elbow bump can be chest high; similar to when we slap high fives during soccer games, but no more one-armed “bro hugs” and definitely no double cheek kisses when greeting the ladies! 

As for my friends from China, we can continue to end our greetings with a slight bow - but after we touch elbows.

And for my fellow countrymen from Jamaica, no more “lion paws” or “fist bumps” or the occasional strange slapping-of-the-palms and twiddling-of-thumbs thing. All of these traditions are vanquished for safety, leaving us with nothing but a double elbow bump, beginning with the two elbows meeting like an X then aligning straight across.

Jamaicans are extra.

Finally... for those who are just not feeling the elbow bump, there is always “wai”. Wai is a no-touch Thai greeting that requires you to clasp your palms together at chest level and bow. At least there are a few cultural salutations that have not been hurt by COVID-19.

For everyone’s sake, I hope that the coronavirus crisis will be over soon for a multitude of reasons, one of them being the annoying elbow bump take-over.

Our cultural differences, including the unique way that we greet each other, are a big part of what makes us interesting. Let us try to keep it that way.

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