Greetings from New Guinea

Dozens of times a day, maybe more, people greet each other. Sometimes it's with a quick lift of the head, a flash of the eyebrows, or a wave of the hand; other times it's with a bright smile, a squeeze of the shoulder, a kiss on the cheek (or two, or three). Only rarely do we reflect on these fleeting exchanges, but they may be as meaningful as anything we do in our social lives. Greetings are not just niceties; in seconds or less, they convey a world of information about intimacy, power, and identity.

J. L. Taylor greeting men in the Wahgi valley of New Guinea, April 1933. Photo: Michael Leahy.

J. L. Taylor greeting men in the Wahgi valley of New Guinea, April 1933. Photo: Michael Leahy.

A question naturally arises: Do humans everywhere greet each other in the same ways? In the photo above, from a storied expedition into the highlands of Papua New Guinea in the 1930s, an Australian man shakes hands with a group of recently contacted New Guineans. Ethnographic evidence suggests that handshaking was indeed a common form of greeting in New Guinea before contact. But the same evidence also suggests that this familiar form co-existed with other ways of greeting, some sufficiently "peculiar" to make an anthropologist blush.

Such greeting forms are described in a remarkable 1977 chapter by Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt (hereafter E-E), the founder of a moribund subfield of the behavioral sciences known as "human ethology." In the paper, E-E discusses both distant greetings, which do not involve bodily contact, and proximal greetings, like the handshake, which do. Drawing on his own field observations and those of other anthropologists, he sketches a number of proximal greeting forms in use around New Guinea:

1. Shaking hands — Some variants involve a set number of shakes; others involve one party proffering particular fingers; still others involve the parties interlocking fingers and withdrawing the hands to make an audible click.

2. Embracing — Again, E-E mentions several versions, some involve the greeter patting or slapping the other's shoulders and back with the hands. One variant involves the greeters "grasping each other around the hips and pressing the genital regions together" (p. 219). 

3. Kissing — He describes kissing as a display of affection commonly seen between parents and children, one that then becomes co-opted as a greeting between adults. 

4. Noserubbing — E-E offers a similar account of noserubbing. It is foremost a way that adults show affection to children, but it is also used in greetings between adults, sometimes along with inhalation. He remarks that the noserubbing-plus-inhalation variant may constitute a kind of "ritualized sniffing" (p. 220). 

5. Stroking penis and scrotum — This greeting was observed in a handful of groups. (There is, in fact, a famous photo of this greeting—or some variant of it—being used by the Dani). E-E traces the form, again, to parent-child interaction, as New Guinean mothers were observed to caress the genital region of their male infants as a way of showing affection.

6. Touching the anus — It is in discussing this last greeting that E-E most obviously raises an eyebrow. He describes it as "peculiar," adding the "remarkable" observation that the greeter, after touching the other's anus, lifts the hand to their own mouth "as if symbolizing eating" (p. 221). E-E characterizes the form as an expression of "extreme submissiveness" and notes its parallels with verbal expressions of greeting in New Guinea that can be glossed as "let me eat your feces."

The study of greetings across cultures—like the study of communicative behavior more generally—is of double interest. On the one hand, there is the sheer diversity of human greetings, with forms that never cease to surprise; but, on the other, are the clear regularities that unite these diverse forms, rendering them intelligible despite their first-blush strangeness. E-E himself is more impressed by this latter side of the coin. He writes: "[T]here exists a basic structural similarity—a universal grammar of greeting—in spite of the apparent cultural diversity" (p. 209). For my part, I find both sides of the coin equally, endlessly compelling. 



1. These expeditions are the subject of a remarkable documentary trilogy, beginning with the 1983 film First Contact.

2. Here is the full reference:

Eibl-Eibesfeldt, I. (1977). Patterns of Greeting in New Guinea. In S. A. Wurm (Ed.), New Guinea Area Languages and Language Study, vol. 3 (pp. 209–247). Canberra: Australian National University.

3. Note that this is just a sampling of the greetings that E-E discusses, but most of the others seem to have been used in more limited contexts.

4. Further reading: A fascinating micro-analytic treatment—'A description of some human greetings'—can be found in Adam Kendon's 1990 book 'Conducting interaction.' A framework for identifying greetings, focusing primarily on verbal aspects and using data from Samoa, is presented in Alessandro Duranti's 'Universal and culture-specific properties of greetings.'