The Non-Verbals of Welcome: Part 2, Holy Kisses, Handshakes, and Hugs

"Greet each other with a holy kiss."
Romans 16.16

"Greet each other with a kiss of love."
I Peter 5.14

Hospitality is a hot topic in churches today. What I'm trying to contribute in these posts is a look at the micro-level, the non-verbals that subtly send messages like "You're not welcome here." or "I honor you."

In my last post I gave an apology for paying attention to touch. In short, I think touch is an oft overlooked means by which we send signals of hospitality.

Apparently, the early church greeted each other with "a holy kiss" or "a kiss of love." I have no idea what this looked like or how offering the kiss across sociological lines would have been experienced in the early church. My hunch is that as social elites and slaves gathered in the early Christian churches the sharing of a holy kiss would have been a radically subversive gesture, an egalitarian symbol enacted by the body of believers.

We don't kiss in America, but we do have our own form of greeting: The handshake. Like the holy kiss, the handshake is an egalitarian gesture. Two people face each other, touch, and engage in a shared movement. My favorite bit of handshake lore involves Thomas Jefferson. The first two Presidents--George Washington and John Adams--used the Old World practice of bowing to greet visitors and guests at formal engagements. Further, given the status of the Presidency, people bowed to the first two presidents. Jefferson, however, shunning displays of hierarchy and royalty, began to greet his guests with the handshake. This was scandalous at the time as it involved physical touch and, as we have noted, it introduced an egalitarianism in greetings. Jefferson didn't want to be bowed to. This set an egalitarian precedent in America. If you didn't bow to the Highest Office in the Land, well, you didn't have to bow to anyone in America.

So I respect the handshake. It introduced both touch and egalitarianism to American greetings. To this day my favorite part of the Catholic Mass is the rite of peace when you turn to those around you and offer the peace, usually a handshake offered with the words "Peace be with you."

And yet, despite all this, I often find the handshake a bit distant. I guess I pine for the days of the holy kiss. This feeling might be due to my experience in South America a few years ago. In South America (but not only there) both men and women exchange cheek kisses. As an American I initially felt awkward with this act. That is until I experienced it in church. From then on I was sold on the idea of cheek kissing as a greeting, between both men and women.

But until American customs change I think we are going to be stuck with the handshake. So, I do the next best thing. I supplement my handshakes with additional points of contact. Sometimes I'll shake hands with two hands. Sometimes I'll touch the person's shoulder or elbow with my left hand as I shake with my right. Again, all of this is simply to send a clear non-verbal signal of welcome. And, obviously, there are hugs for people I know well.

Now I'll admit that males hugging can be awkward at times. Too much homophobia I guess. So what males need in America is something that is more than a handshake and less than a hug. Here is my recommendation for male greetings in the church:

My favorite male greeting is one I find most common in my African-American students. To start, we all know what the typical handshake looks like:

But in the form of greeting I'm recommending rather than extending the hand outward, the hand is elevated with the elbow bent. Like in this picture of Shaq and Kobe:

From there the hands come together to clasp around the base of the thumbs. Like this:

This posture allows for an embrace. In the classic handshake the arms of the people shaking hands act as a kind of rigid rod between them. It is very hard to move into a hug from a classic handshake. This, I think, is the source of much male-to-male awkwardness when there is a miscue on if we are attempting to shake hands or have a hug.

But from this different handclasp the elbows are already bent. This allows the two people to move quite close to each other, with the hands pressed between the chests and below the chin. To finish off the greeting, after clasping hands, you move in close, and then, with the left arm, reach around the person and offer an embrace. Sometimes it's just a strong pat on the back. You can then back up, still clasping hands.

When I greet my male students this is my preferred mode of greeting and welcoming. The handshake is too distant; the hug is too intimate. But this half hug, half handshake is the perfect mix. Plus, it has a kind of urban cool which I also like.

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6 thoughts on “The Non-Verbals of Welcome: Part 2, Holy Kisses, Handshakes, and Hugs”

  1. Uggh. Touch heals. Let us get real. Touch at work, at church, wherever.... can be misinterpreted. Some people (men especially) have roaming hands.... sorry - that is truth. I can tell you examples. Some women give the healing "peck". Hmmmm. Ask my wife how angry she became about the woman who insisted on giving me the peck on the cheek. Some people - for whatever reason - see touch as an invasive intrusion and, therefore, a form of harassment.

    Wake up. We live in a very broken world. You can offer the healing hug, coolio handshake.... to many people... but .. one day... to the person who miscontrues it. It may cost you your job.

    By the way - Bernie Madoff wants to give your investment a great return....

  2. Hi Bob,
    What a great video. Thanks for sharing it. It makes the point much better than I could.

    The question is, if you look at how nerdy this post is, can I ever really be cool given my inner nerd?

    Well, I do appreciate your dose of reality. However, two points by way of self-defense:

    1.) All I'm really after in these posts is to get people to pay attention to how they interact with others. Too many Christians, IMHO, come across as chilly assholes, even in the church. So if hospitality is something we want to work on, my suggestion is to begin with a defrost.

    2.) I don't want to be hyperbolic with the "healing" claim. I'm a psychologist, I know a hug isn't a cure for major depression. But I do think physical touch can participate in healing. I know in my church when we gather round a person and lay hands on them to pray that this act is much more intimate, meaningful, and emotionally profound than when we send our prayer "through the air" as it were. Plus, one of the best recommendations for depression is getting a pet like a dog or cat. I think the physical contact/touch with another living thing is the critical healing component there (because, obviously, they can't talk, their therapeutic effectiveness is, essentially, non-verbal and mediated through physical contact).

    However, we can all take you cautions to heart.

  3. Dr. Beck: "Nerdy" is obviously a matter of opinion, because this series has actually been one of my favorites of yours to follow (maybe because I can often times get lost in your more theology-related posts...HA! You talk above my head in those...HA!). Or I suppose maybe this just makes me “nerdy”...Hmmm...

    Anyways, "touch" has probably been one of my most favorite subject matters to think about in reference to human behaviors and emotion. If I can ever get myself to sit down and work on it, I hope to write a book about such a subject matter, as I've already got my outline started. Touch and how it affects humans is so intriguing to me!

    Two of my favorite "touch" forms to consider are:

    1.) Hugs (as you previously posted on). I used to be the WORST hugger and practically NEVER initiated a hug with people, but thanks to none-other-than a client from a few years ago, hugs have become a very important part of my life. I posted about that client situation on my blog here --

    2.) Simple intentional touch when speaking to people. The placing of one's hand on someone one's shoulder or knee when you're speaking to them. It seems to truly engage the individual with what you're saying when there is the physical connection too. It's so interesting.

    Anonymous: I would agree that "touch" can not always be extended without situational consideration. This was something that I learned to take into great consideration when working with victims of domestic abuse.

    Certain types of touch can be viewed as welcoming and acceptable in some situations and not in others. Just as Dr. Beck stated (as you did as well), the cheek kissing can be welcoming and acceptable in some situations (i.e. South America) but not taken the same way in others (i.e. when the woman insisted on giving pecks to you and your wife disapproved; or how in the U.S. in general kiss greetings between strangers is unfamiliar). Does this make it wrong that they do it in South America? No, it's a situational consideration based on culture familiarity.

    When working with victims of domestic violence a therapist is generally not going to greet the victim with a handshake in the initial meeting. This is a situational consideration because it is important to know where the victim stands on touch in general. A victim's view on being touched will be based on what he/she has been through in the past; it depends on the physical touch he/she had with their abuser, as this can sway how they will welcome different forms of touch. Even what is considered to be one of the least engaging and more distant of the forms of touch for greeting an individual -- the handshake, can resemble unwanted touch based on experiences from the past for a victim.

    I feel often times our interpretations on touch come from our experiences with it in the past. An individual who has been beaten in the past is going to shy away from many forms of physical touch.

    For example, if a person is sitting next to someone on a couch and they want to get their attention and speak to them about something, he/she might reach over and place a hand on the other person's knee or thigh. Imagine that the person initiating the touch has no other intention but to get the other individual's attention. The person receiving the touch might take it a just that -- a way to get attention; however, should that individual be someone who has been violated sexually in the past, that same form of touch could be misinterpreted. As you mentioned, possibly this individual has had an experience in the past with "roaming hands", so a hand on the thigh could resemble unwanted touch for him/her.

    To me, it seems as if our experiences with touch from the past will influence how we will interpret it and choose whether to welcome it or not in the future.

    I agree that an individual should take into consideration the situation when engaging in touch, and decide what form of touch (or none at all) is most appropriate based on that situation and those involved in it (or as you said, one COULD lose his/her job).

  4. Thanks for this post. I really enjoyed it!

    But why is the focus for this type of handshake, also known as the 'soul brother' 'peace' or 'unity' handshake on male relationships? I've developed some very strong friendships with similar aged men in my church, and I also find a hug too intimate, and a classic handshake too formal, and have often used this 'peace' handshake as a way of expressing my love and affection to them without giving a wrong impression or trying to be distractingly physical.
    I think it is on often overlooked form of expression, but one that conveys a lot of love without being awkward or crossing too many physical boundaries.

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