by Richard Dawkins
The common cold is not serious enough to warrant high levels of medical attention, but it is unpleasant, debilitating, and economically costly if you add up its effects over a whole population. The family of viruses responsible for colds can infect through the air, but the favoured method is surface-to-surface contact. You can pick up a cold from a door handle, especially if you subsequently touch your face (as most of us do more than we realise). The custom of shaking hands could have been specifically designed by a malevolent virus, and there is a strong case for abolishing it. As for social kissing . . .
The habit of kissing on both cheeks as a social greeting used to be regarded as a French custom, but during my lifetime it has become widespread in Anglo-American society too. Male-male kissing is still rare but female-female and female-male social kissing is now so common that I’ve often seen it between previously unacquainted guests as they take their leave after a dinner party. This change in social custom must surely represent a bonanza of opportunity for the rhinovirus: even better than the handshake and nearly as good as the nose-rubbing of some tribal societies. I wonder whether the common cold was less prevalent in Nazi Germany when the handshake was replaced by the Heil Hitler salute, involving no physical contact at all. In societies where women get kissed twice as often as men (because men don’t kiss men), are they more vulnerable?
I don’t know how much research may have been done on such matters. But a good public health case can surely be made for discouraging handshaking and especially social kissing. How could we as individuals refuse a proffered handshake or cheek-kiss without giving offence? Maybe I’ll take up the Japanese custom of bowing. Anybody join me? Or how about that rather charming gesture, kissing the tips of your own fingers and projecting the virtual kiss through the air?
As you may have guessed, I have a cold. And I think I know who gave it to me.