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St Peter's 13-18

13 March 2020

Being particularly mindful of hygiene at present, last night we went for a practice of no hand shaking at Fourth Form Parents’ Evening.  I always enjoy catching up with people on such occasions and had an interesting conversation with one parent about how strange it feels not to shake hands and overcoming the instinctive action of walking towards someone, sticking out your hand to say hello and welcome.  Indeed, refusing to shake hands with someone is a sign of disapproval and rejection – one of the non-verbal ways in which we register disgust.

Other options are of course available but I find it difficult to do a fist bump sincerely although I quite like extending the elbow for a tap - but only because it makes me feel as though I have a finger-nail’s grasp on being cool.  Which perhaps explains my reference a couple of weeks ago to teaching KSI and Roman Kemp (I was also at school with Chris Martin of Coldplay but recognise that they may not be quite in the same league these days).  Tapping feet heel to heel as a substitute is also apparently being recommended but that sounds a bit close to a Cumberland shin-kicking competition.

When you step back and think about it, the convention of shaking hands may itself seem quite strange.  Apparently it has origins in the days where people might carry a sword and so shaking with your right-hand showed that you came in peace.  Note, the right hand, harking back to the days when being left-handed was seen as being wrong and the origins of the Latin word ‘sinistra’ meaning ‘left’ evolved into our word ‘sinister’.

We have all sorts of customs relating to clothing and appearance.  Some of which change over time, others don’t.  When I was very young, the custom was that men’s hair should be parted on the left.  When my barber said that my hair wouldn’t sit that way, my dear father had his parting changed so that I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable.  If wearing a waistcoat, the bottom button must be left undone – something to do with this being necessary when riding a horse.  If wearing a three button suit only the middle button should be done up and if wearing a two button suit only the top button should be fastened.  Only wear black shoes with suits – never brown or heaven forbid suede.  There was even a rhyme for it – ‘never wear brown in town’ which would make life difficult for Peterites.

But times change.  As the famous first line of LP Hartley’s novel The Go-Between says, ‘The past is a foreign country.  They do things differently there.’  On Monday, I went to Apple HQ in London for a strategy day on technology in education.  Guessing that the dress code would be different, I opted for chinos and an open-necked shirt under a jacket which perhaps surprised those who I walked past on my way to the station.  I wouldn’t be surprised if wearing ties will be a thing of the past in my career although schools will likely lag some years behind changes elsewhere.  And some customs persist but are increasingly divisive in terms of reinforcing gender disparity such as holding doors open for a lady or walking on the outside of a pavement (harking back to the idea that if water was splashed up by a vehicle the man would shield the woman). 

Going back to my examples of customs in the past, it was a social minefield full of rules that made you either wrong or right.  In the club or out of the club.  Did you know which cutlery to use at a formal dinner.  When putting salt on your food, did you toss the last bit over your left shoulder to knock off the devil sitting there? 

Today we live in a more internationally diverse world and social customs are loosening up.  Arguably though we need to be more discerning in our understanding of customs.  Putting hands together, bowing and saying ‘namaste’ as a greeting. Handing over business cards with two hands and spending time inspecting the one you are given.  Not showing the soles of your feet to someone when sitting down.  Never beckoning someone with your fingers up – they must always be pointed downwards.

An appreciation of social customs – when to be more or less formal, how to value and respect other cultures – shows not just politeness but can also be a way of making people feel included rather than excluded.  And diversity is good.  As they French, with their capacity for, I don’t know what, say, “Vive la difference “.  And on that I totally endorse for Mr Snelling’s chapel address on celebrating difference and diversity.

And some social customs are incredibly highly prized.  Looking people in the eye, speaking clearly and giving a proper handshake.  These simple things say so much about trust, confidence and respect.  So for now, no hand shaking but it will be good to get back to it in due course and in the meantime, while we may not be shaking hands – make sure you are regularly washing them.