1. Shaking hands.
This universal custom dates back to ancient times. Depictions of handshakes have been found in archaeological ruins from the 4th century BC.
In that era it evolved as a gesture of peace, demonstrating that the hand holds no weapon. Today, of course, it is a way of establishing intimacy for the first time, or acting as a symbolic bond when an agreement is reached.
2. Nod for yes…
…shake for no.
None other than Charles Darwin looked into this. In his 1913 book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals he put forward the theory that head nods and shakes are both, to an extent, innate.
Babies will typically move their head to the side to refuse food, and nod in approval - though as with much child development theory, it is difficult to say how much of this is also learned behaviour. One thing Darwin did discover is that, although both gestures are typical to most cultures, there is one example where the rules are exactly reversed - Bulgaria.
3. Clapping hands.
Clapping to signify approval probably originated in ancient Rome. Plays written by Plautus and Terence including the imperative ‘plaudite’, which was a prompt for the audience to clap. The idea survived the dark ages then came to prominence again in 16th century France, where ‘claques’ - groups of professional clappers - were hired to by theatres and operas to make the shows seem more successful. Most of Europe soon followed suit.
Interestingly though, applause is considered an example of learned, rather than innate, behaviour. Alternative methods - such as stomping feet or hollering - are used by crowds to express approval in other cultures around the world (even the Romans alternated it with finger snapping and toga waving). In the wild, hands are clapped to signify danger or alert others to food, not to express pleasure.
It may seem like a silly question, but 10% of humans don’t kiss, so why do the rest of feel compelled to lock tongues and bathe in each other’s saliva?
As with much of human horniness, the most widely accepted theory is that it relates to reproduction. When we’re playing tonsil tennis we’re exchanging pheromones and having a biological ‘conversation’, as well as being close enough to facilitate smell, which is one way we subconciously test whether our immune system proteins are different enough to form a strong offspring.
Of course, the reproduction theory always makes life feel somewhat unromantic… there is also the fact that our lips and tongues are packed with nerve endings, which is why it feels so good and why when we’re attracted to people in other ways, we want to do it again and again.
The custom of wishing one another well over a drink is so old, it can’t be traced to any point in history. But why clink glasses and drink at the same time, too? A popular myth is that people once did it to prove they hadn’t poisoned each another, as the contents of the glasses spilled over into each other. A great story, but not one based in fact.
The custom actually stems from the fact people once drank from a communal bowl that was passed around by the host. In modern times, as that practice was phased out and people got their own cups, the process of drinking at the same time was introduced to retain the same sense of unity. The clinking soon followed, partly because of the pleasant tone made by two wine glasses.
6. “Bless you!”
The theories as to why we evoke the benevolence of God when someone sneezes are numerous, and mostly rooted in superstition. Certainly the custom has been around since at least 150AD, when it is referred to in the Ancient Roman novel The Golden Ass by Apuleius, which appears to contradict the popular idea that it began during the Black Death. One feasible theory is that people once believed your soul escaped when you sneezed, and a blessing was a way to shield it from evil.
7. Thumbs up.
It’s popularly believed that the thumbs up / down gestures came from Ancient Rome when it was used by the crowd in The Colosseum to vote for whether a gladiator should be killed or spared. Actually, they crowds thrust their thumb out in a stabbing motion like a sword or kept them tucked in to cast their vote. The mistake is the result of several years of misinterpreted Latin.
The possible origins for thumbs up coming to equal ‘good’ and down as ‘bad’ are numerous. One may be the old English saying ‘Here’s my thumb on it!’ which was used to seal a deal, and involved two people wetting their thumbs and pressing them together. Another may have been an old French thumb gesture that signaled ‘first class’. Helping to develop this and other human behaviour is the fact that the up = good / down = bad dichotomy has run through our thought and language pretty much forever.
8. The high five.
For a gesture that only made its way into the dictionary in 1980, the exact origin of the high five is difficult to pin down. But what seem fairly certain is that it first occurred in American sports. At least one book states baseball stars Dusty Baker and Glenn Burke of the Los Angeles Dodgers did it first during a game in Dodger Stadium on 2 October 1977. Another claims that it first happened a year later at the University of Louisville Cardinals basketball practice between Wiley Brown and Derek Smith. Either way, it’ll be interesting to see if we’re still high fiving hundreds, or even thousands of years from now.