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[Op-Ed] Flu Changing Intimate Customs

Posted September. 14, 2009 08:57,   


Countries have different ways of greeting someone, but the most universal way is to shake hands. How did this custom start? Opinions differ over when the handshake started, but almost everybody is convinced that it shows that one has no weapon in his or her hand – in other words, one does not want to fight. The same is true of one taking his or her hat off. The suggestion that one has nothing in his hat evolved into a greeting.

While the handshake started in Britain, the French prefer “la bise,” or a kiss on each cheek not only between close friends but also between people meeting each other for the first time. Many Asians are turned off by this practice when introduced to French people.

The H1N1 flu virus is putting an end to handshakes and la bise. French insurance giant AXA has banned its employees from kissing or shaking hands. Certain schools and kindergartens are also asking parents to tell their children not to perform la bise.

Experts say, however, that discouraging handshakes could pose a bigger problem. Sally Bloomfield, the head of the International Scientific Forum on Home Hygiene, said in a paper that the handshake is more infectious than kissing on the cheek.

According to the rules of hand washing, one should clean hands after touching money and pushing an elevator button, not to mention after using the toilet. The handshake is dangerous because one never knows what another person did before shaking hands.

Influenza A is also changing one of Korea’s oldest customs: a group of people taking turns drinking alcohol from the same glass being passed around. With fear over the new flu spreading widely, people might find new ways to greet each other, like turning their heads to prevent spreading viruses.

Editorial Writer Chung Sung-hee (shchung@donga.com)