Hello ‘foot-shake’? The new rules of etiquette in a time of coronavirus

Greeting people can be confusing at the best of times. Will a simple handshake do? Should you launch into a hug? Or offer a peck on the cheek (or two)?

But throw in a contagious virus with a worrying mortality rate, then the ritual of the greeting others becomes even more puzzling.

The kiss on the cheek greeting isn’t recommended right now.Credit:Getty

The spread of the novel coronavirus, which has infected almost 90,000 people and killed more than 3000, is leading to cultural soul-searching on the question of how friendly is too friendly when it comes to greeting others during a public health emergency.

In Italy and France, authorities are encouraging people to quit greeting others with kisses on the cheek. "We have lots of contact, we shake hands, we kiss each other, we hug each other," said Italy's special commissioner for coronavirus, Angelo Borrelli. "Maybe it is better in this period not to shake hands, and to not have too much contact."

At Milan Fashion Week, people were seen doing a double kiss to their fingertips in place of cheek-kissing.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel told a room of about 400 people on Friday that she would not be shaking anyone's hand.

And a senior World Health Organisation official endorsed "elbow bumps" and "foot-shakes" as a safer alternative to shaking hands.

The global health crisis is now threatening to worsen on Australian shores, where emergency measures are in place, and the nation's chief medical officer Brendan Murphy warned on Monday it is "no longer possible" to prevent new cases of coronavirus from entering the country.

Prominent Sydney GP Dr Brad McKay says cutting back on the handshakes, hugs and cheek-kisses is a smart move.

"We know coronavirus can be spread just from people breathing near you, they don't have to cough or sneeze, and it can also stay on surfaces such as benchtops or handles," Dr McKay says. "So any way to stop contact with the virus, the better."

"People can be infected with coronavirus and not show any symptoms… We need to clamp down and try to stop the spread as much as we can," Dr McKay says.

He says there is no point changing your greeting behaviour with people you share a household with, but it is worthwhile doing so with friends, relatives, colleagues and people in public.

"It's very difficult to change these practices because it's so ingrained in what we do," he says. "Just know that people aren't beng rude, it's a part of stopping infections."

So how should you go about changing the way you greet people?

Dr McKay says while he can't see "elbow bumps" and "foot-shakes" catching on, using the Auslan wave to say "hello" could be a way to change our greetings culturally in a way that is still polite.

Etiquette expert Susan Wilson suggests simply greeting people by looking them in the eye, smiling and saying hello.

"During this time with coronavirus, people are very worried, however, a genuine welcome will not offend anyone."

Anna Musson, founder of Good Manners, says her workplace has introduced the "coronavirus high-five", which is essentially a high-five minus the touching.

"If one of the team is feeling unwell or concerned, we can still greet each other and have a laugh about it," she says.

Ms Musson says the main thing to keep in mind is how your actions make the other person feel.

"If you're going to do something outside of the norm, such as touch elbows or refuse to shake hands, you need to provide context for that."

Being upfront, she says, is best. Apologise in advance before declining to shake hands, and say you're afraid of becoming unwell to make it clear it's not about them, it's about you.

She suggests using humour as a way to defuse a potentially awkward situation.

"It's a bit rude to suggest someone might pass on a virus so be mindful of that," Ms Musson says. "Think about what you could say as a buffer."

Ms Musson says when explaining why you're ditching the handshake, don't state that you're scared of catching the coronavirus.

"It's much better to say 'for my health' or 'I'm being mindful of hygiene', it's more tactful and less blunt."

And if you yourself aren't feeling well, Ms Musson says to apologise for not feeling 100 per cent and don't make physical contact.

Dr McKay says changing how we greet others goes hand-in-hand with other polite, hygienic behaviour to help minimise the risk of spreading the virus.

That includes sneezing or coughing into your elbow (also known as the "vampire cough") if you don't have a clean tissue available to cover your mouth and nose; wiping down devices before you share them with another person; and washing your hands regularly and thoroughly.

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