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Evolution explains why social distancing is so difficult due to Covid-19

Hugs, handshakes, and air kisses serve the same crucial purposes as animal greetings like sniffing, poking around in the eyes, and grasping the buttocks


November 11, 2020

By David Robson

We long for physical contact with family to strengthen our bonds

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On March 9, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte convened a press conference to discuss his country’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. “We’ll stop shaking hands from now on,” he said – before promptly reaching out his hand to greet an infectious disease expert.

Many of us can empathize. Social distancing sounds harmless, but this year we discovered how hard it can be in practice. Sensitive greetings such as handshakes, hugs, kisses and nose rubbing are deeply rooted in many cultures. However, these gestures are not just learned. If you look at the animal kingdom, you will find that many species – especially very social ones – perform physical rituals as they approach each other. If our urge to touch in greeting seems instinctual, it is because they are.

Greetings accepted by animals can be very different from ours – they include winking and other gestures that might make you wind – but understanding these behaviors can give us some insight into human greetings. Examining the evolution of greetings sheds light on the subtle ways they smear social interactions, and also helps explain why they are so different. Since we are a super social species, it is not surprising that many of us struggle to adjust to the new normal. But the good news is that we have been shown to be masters at adapting our greetings to new situations.

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