Too Close for Comfort

Humans have a voracious desire to reach out and touch the people they meet. They hug, kiss, shake, hug again; they pass love, respect, and germs back and forth like a bowl of cool-ranch Doritos at a July 4th party. Greetings have always been unsettling. Anyone who has fallen victim to the Christian “side hug” (a graceless embrace that begins like a normal hug but ends with a surprising shove to the side to avoid genital contact) will affirm that it takes two to tango when it comes to proper greeting etiquette. How many times have I banged noses with an enthusiastic greeter who goes left instead of right with the European kiss-kiss? Or had my delicate Piano Girl fingers crushed by the vice-like grimy grip of a hulk wannabe who uses all his strength to shake my hand? Saying a proper hello has always been weird, but in 2020, it has gotten ever so much worse. 

The greeting playbook has been rewritten, my friends, and our options are limited. 

I’m not a fan of the fist bump. President Obama—King of Cool—has always gotten away with fist bumping, but the mortals among us are best advised to avoid it. I will raise my fist for other issues—to threaten a punch in the nose, to protest for peace—but a greeting is not one of them. Plus, those germs still land on one’s fist, right? What if I have the urge to lick my fist later in the day? Or rub my eyes like a baby? Or try to do that party trick where I put my entire fist in my mouth? And is my hand sanitizer, the one currently causing my cuticles to peel and bleed, really strong enough to kill the deadly contagions that have been loitering on the other guy’s knuckles? Sorry, but unless I meet Obama, no fist bumping. 

The elbow touch, a close relative of the side hug, might be somewhat effective, but when I see a bunch of old Caucasian guys touching elbows, I always think they’re about to break into an awkward white-person soul shake, and that the next thing on the agenda will be snapping fingers (on one and three), hip thrusts, butt bashing, and Trump-inspired lizard dance moves. Let’s not go there. 

For a short while, the toe tap seemed popular. I call it kicking. The first time this happened to me—during an encounter with a banquet waiter while playing a piano job at a fancy-pants castle wedding—I couldn’t fathom why a member of the service staff was kicking me. Kicking, in polite circles outside of the prison yard, has never been an acceptable greeting. How are you, darling? Bam! In retrospect, I think the waiter was aiming for the toe of my leopard-skin pumps but missed and hit my lower leg. He presented me with a glass of fine champagne after the assault, but my shin remained sore for days. That’s no way to greet a lady.

There’s always the Jeffrey Toobin Zoom wave-wank, but most of us aren’t brave enough to appear anywhere in public without pants, especially while discussing the upcoming erection election. There but for the grace of Zoom go all of us. 

Who’s zoomin’ who, anyway?

Here’s my suggestion: Let’s all agree to bow. Bow, as in bend from the waist—not bow as in playing a string instrument arco, although that too could be an interesting greeting if everyone agreed to play in tune. My husband, the double bass player, wrote a book once, which has become somewhat of a cult classic in the bass community. The title—Jazz Bowing Techniques for the Improvising Bassist—has caused some confusion over the years. Is that a bow in your quiver, or are you just happy to see me? Ask Jeffrey Toobin.

Some Asian cultures embrace the bow as a respectful form of greeting. I’ve gotten into a few bowing battles with Japanese fans (how low can you go?), and it can be a lot of fun, although somewhat distracting if one is, say, in the middle of performing a Satie Gymnopedie or a Gershwin standard on an instrument with questionable action. Still, bowing while playing is easier than trying to shake hands, bump fists, or touch elbows with an animated guest who doesn’t recognize that it takes two hands to play the piano. And I’d much rather be acknowledged with a bow than have someone kick my pedal foot out from under me or wave an unmentionable appendage at me when he thinks I’m not looking.  

Added bonus: Bowing can be executed from a distance and it functions nicely in both analog and digital settings. It’s an all-purpose way to say hello.

I like bowing. As a performer I’ve been doing it most of my life, usually to get someone to clap for me, present me with roses, or give me money. As a kid, fantasizing about thunderous applause and an audience who might actually like what I do, I used to practice bowing in the mirror. I’m good at it and you can be, too. There’s the throw-away nod, the nonchalant jazz-guy bow, the namby-pamby my-heart belongs-to-you chest pat, the Shakespearean current-call bow (complete with hand flourish and leg gymnastics), the deep diva-curtsy, the namaste prayer-hands dip, and the royal meet-the-prince bob. You can personalize your bow for each situation. Make it eccentric, business-like, comedic, or coy. Pratfalls are permitted if one is wearing heels or has a bad hip. Do keep your pants on.

And here’s the best part—no touching. You can send love into the world, or at least across the room, without bruising your shins, breaking your nose or fingers, suffering the indignity of the Christian side hug, exposing your private parts in front of an editorial team, or catching the frigging plague from someone who may have had her fist in her mouth seconds before meeting you. 

The cautious curtsy may become a permanent addition to my repertoire of standard greetings. I’ve always been a full-on hugger, but that’s over unless the huggee is part of my inner circle. Do my bows look ridiculous? Probably. But if you’re wearing a mask and standing at a distance, you can laugh yourself silly and I’ll never know. 

Nice to meet you. 

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Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl;  Rhythm: A Novel.  New: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip.

Robin’s music is available on all streaming platforms. If you’re a Spotify fan, go here to listen. NEW! Listen to the Piano Girl Podcast. Stories, music, fun. Do you play the piano? Check out Robin’s solo piano sheet music here, including her popular arrangement of the Pachelbel Canon in D.