Why do we shake hands with other people when we meet? What is the origin of the knowledge that you have to finish your plate? Why do we take off our shoes when entering a living room, although putting them back on and tying the laces is really tedious and wastes our precious time? What is the origin of all the deeply rooted gestures, bodily movements, and customs we follow every day?
Art Leete, Professor of Ethnology at the University of Tartu, explains that no one really knows where some customs have come from: “This is the beauty of culture. Only tentative opinions exist about influences. People don’t make decisions about changing their customs at meetings. These things have just developed to be the way they are.”
From Knights to Politeness
In the Medieval Period and even a little later, politeness was a quality that was attributed solely to knights, as they constituted the higher social class. Many customs that are essential to modern etiquette come from the everyday life of the knights. For example, shaking hands while greeting someone, as well as tipping one’s hat, are thought to be from these old times. Showing a hand without a weapon or raising the visor of one’s armor were signs that the person came in peace, without aggressive intentions.
“Today, there’s no need to deliver a message that we don’t want to kill the other person as we extend our hands, but there are many other things we get to know while greeting each other. We greet people from different social classes differently. Greeting is more formal with people we have no emotional connection with. People with closer relations stand closer to each other while greeting,” says Art Leete. He notes that such modern everyday habits or rules of behavior can have an evolutionary background, with the initial idea being to deliver the message “I’m not aggressive.”
“Of course, one cannot explain it all with evolution, but the initial reasons for such developments are definitely buried in quite a distant past. Culture influences behavior, and that’s why there are different customs in different places around the world. In the old times, even as some tribes were constantly fighting, there were still periods of peace in between. Then there was a need to somehow tell apart which kind of communication was required.”
Still, greeting by shaking hands isn’t widespread everywhere. For example, in Muslim culture, men and women don’t touch each other casually, so there can be no handshaking between them. Most cultures of the Asian or Pacific countries use bowing and passing one’s business card as for a norm for greeting. In Thailand, people place their palms together at chest level, give a bow, and then smile.
Speaking of more peculiar greeting habits, some might have no real ground in reality, Leete says. “A famous stereotype would be Eskimos rubbing their noses together. A book published a hundred years ago says that this is the way Sami people greet each other. Nowadays, it’s mainly associated with Eskimos, but this ‘custom’ actually made its way into our consciousness thanks to the movie ‘Eskimos’, created in 1930. The film has a love scene with nose-rubbing in it, an activity specifically devised for the movie to bring some excitement. By now, it’s become a famous example. I personally think that the majority of people all over the world do behave in quite similar ways, but people still have this curiosity – maybe there is something really weird somewhere.”
Culture – A Thousand Little Things
Still, one can find some surprising things when digging into the traditions of people of the world. Leete says that he once saw an anthropological documentary where the filmmakers met aborigines from Papua New Guinea.
“Obviously they couldn’t speak to each other. When there was a need to show some numbers, the aborigines could only count to four using their fingers. From there on, the number five was indicated using one’s wrist, while six involved the arm, seven the elbow, eight was located halfway across the upper arm, nine on the shoulder, and ten on the neck. At first, it might have been quite incomprehensible to the film crew,” the professor said with a smile.
But why are the thousand-year-old customs still in use, although nobody remembers their initial meaning anymore? “How likely would it be that people give up their greeting habits? These things don’t vanish that simply, unless they are prohibited by the government. Today, greeting habits are especially important, since it makes at least some minimal contact possible between people.”
Reet Hiiemäe, a folklorist, says that people often don’t know the origins of a custom at all. “Oftentimes, the initial reasons for customs are not known or acknowledged, but the traditions are still being followed to some extent, as they have to do with identity and the feeling of belonging – many habits are followed just because it has always been that way and it just feels right.”
Everyday habits can change when the ways in which people make their living, as well as their lifestyles, transmute. It can also be caused by the widening of cultural contacts – in today’s globalized world, exotic customs which were unknown to us just a couple of decades ago can reach us. For example, Estonian mainstream media have recently given instructions on how to make voodoo dolls for some love magic and popularized principles of Feng Shui.
Art Leete is most interested in the nature of a human being as such. “Some things come down to one’s ability to express oneself. Even people of the same nation behave differently. However, in the grand scheme of life, things such as how we eat or whether we take off our shoes when entering a living room are just details. But it’s through these thousands of small details that we can study and understand the beauty of human culture. Culture manifests itself in everything.”
Oink-oink – Thanks for the Delicious Food!
Some older Estonian folklore indicates that we didn’t use to condemn burping, for example, says Hiiemäe.
“Seeing burping as something impolite is probably related to the development of more urban culture, which brought along the wish to clearly differentiate one’s behavior from that of animals. On the other hand, in some villages of China or Nepal, avid belching during a meal can be heard to this very day. That’s how those who prepared the food are thanked and praised. And even in Estonia one can find people who casually burp and then say: “The pig sent its greetings” (“Siga saadab terviseid” in Estonian).
My Sword Hand Is Empty!
In the old days, it was required that a man show his right hand. Somebody who kept his hand behind his back or hid it in some other way just couldn’t have come with clean intentions. When adversaries wanted to discuss matters in a peaceful way, they rode towards each other with the right hand extended and shook hands. They didn’t unlock hands until the negotiations were over, so no one could unexpectedly grab his sword and have a quick victory over the other. The habit lives on to this day. We keep our hands out of our pockets when we talk each other – or at least while greeting.
But in many Asian countries, shaking hands is not common. “It has been speculated that in countries with martial art traditions it wasn’t safe to extend one’s hand like that, as it could give the other man a chance to start a hand-fight. Thus, in these places greeting from a relative distance was preferred. Other authors have linked greeting traditions to the climate – a hot climate can make hands sweat, thus hindering the development of such a habit,” Hiiemäe said.
Empty Your Plate so the Weather Will Be Nice Tomorrow!
In Estonia there has always been a habit of eating everything on one’s plate, but it’s not like that in all places of the world. According to Estonian folklore, the plate had to be emptied, so the power in the food wouldn’t go to waste. “It was thought that the last mouthful of food was not meant to be discarded or for a dog, because by doing so, you lose the strength the food has given you – or your appetite. In some places in Germany, people still have the belief – originating from peasant culture – that if you eat everything on the plate, then the next day there will be beautiful weather,” Hiiemäe said. The only ones who could permit themselves to discard food were the those with a relatively unlimited supply – the richer and thus “finer” social class.
“That’s where the habit to leave a last piece on the dish, as ‘the polite piece,’ has come from. In Asia and the Middle East, food and drinks are given to the guest until the plate is no longer emptied. It’s out of politeness – to guarantee that the guest’s appetite has really been satisfied,” the folklorist says.
Art Leete points out that emptying one’s plate completely might be influenced by Christian values. On the other hand, eating and not abandoning one’s food can be explained with educational principles. “In America, it is traditionally assumed that everyone eats their food completely, and the children are forced to do so as well, as otherwise they can’t get dessert. The educational message from the parents to the child would be: you have to be diligent in your life and always do the hardest and most unpleasant task first, and then you can get the prize (the dessert). Then again, in Italian families children could traditionally decide by themselves what to eat and in what amount. The point is that this way the children would learn to make their choices themselves. Some food would be left behind, but the kid can choose what he/she likes, while learning to know oneself better,” Leete says, illuminating how table manners could develop qualities desirable to the parents.
According to Hiiemäe, Estonian lore says no to all kind of spilling and wasting food. When something edible dropped to the table or to the floor, it was picked up and eaten. In this way, the future flow of food was symbolically assured. Leete says that in some other places of the world, dropping food on the table is considered to be a good sign. This custom probably has its roots in the old belief that when something is spilled shile eating, it goes to household deities as a sacrifice. “When food is spilled accidentally, it constitutes an especially good sacrifice, as it shows that the spirits wanted to eat something.”
But why do Estonians have the habit of offering their visitors food, baking a piece of cake for them to take home, and also bringing food along when visiting someone?
Hiiemäe says that leaving a place with an empty stomach or without sitting down wasn’t recommended in Estonian traditional texts, as people were afraid that the guest would then disrupt the host’s food fortunes. “Bringing something to eat when visiting someone has probably to do with the aspiration to bring abundance to the home being visited. For example, bringing salt and bread when going to a housewarming party (actually ‘the salt and bread party’ in Estonian – soolaleivapidu) was supposed to guarantee luck with bread in the new dwellers’ home. Still, the visitors had to keep a piece of the bread for themselves, to ensure the continuity of their own food fortune.”
This story was originally published in the Estonian daily newspaper Õhtuleht.