The air kiss couldn’t do it. The bro hug couldn’t do it.
Will COVID finally kill the friendly handshake for good?
All across socially distanced America, hardly anyone is shaking hands anymore, even as the beaches fill with hordes of pasty shut-ins and the restaurant doors crack open 25% or 50%. Unless you’re a sidelined NBA player or a supermodel in heels, it’s a hard maneuver to achieve from six feet away. Yep, they’re giving last rites to the handshake everywhere.
No less an authority than Dr. Anthony Fauci is saying good riddance and don’t come back again.
“I don’t think we should ever shake hands ever again,” the trusted director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and co-leader of the White House Coronavirus Task Force was saying. “We’ve got to break that custom.” Handshakes, he noted, are “really one of the major ways that you can transmit a respiratory illness.”
Dr. Gregory Poland, a renowned infectious-disease specialist at the Mayo Clinic, went even further. “When you extend your hand,” he said, “you’re extending a bioweapon.”
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Me? I’m suddenly blaming my father for sending me out into the world as an unwitting bioterrorist. “Look ’em in the eye,” he told me in no uncertain terms all those decades ago, echoing the advice he’d been given by his own father, I’m sure. “Give a good firm grip. No wet fish, OK?”
If only I had known the lives I was putting at risk!
But here’s the question, and it’s never been more relevant than it is right now: Even if I’d been more informed about the science of viral transmission, would I have done any differently? Would any of us have?
According to historians, the handshake first appeared in Greece in the 5th century B.C., and it had a very practical purpose. It was a symbol of peace designed to show that neither person possessed a weapon. During the Roman era, the handshake was actually more of an arm grab, but the message was the same: You’re not carrying. I’m not carrying. We’re good.
But the benefits were not only practical, as things turned out. While Socrates was musing that the unexamined life was not worth living, lesser mortals were discovering that the untouching life kinda stunk too. Humans, it seems, have always been drawn to mutual, physical contact, even outside the bedroom. And not just humans.
Chimpanzees, our closest cousins in the animal kingdom, greet each other by touching palms. Male giraffes neck, which for them means entwining their necks and swaying and rubbing to assess each other’s size and strength. It’s a dominance thing.
But we’re smarter than chimpanzees and giraffes are. They don’t even have their own Dr. Fauci. And the data is unequivocal. Handshaking spreads all sorts of living things.
So what will become of the handshake when the COVID threat is finally over, when meds or a vaccine free all of us to go worry about something else? I have seen the studies. I have read the articles. I grasp the arguments. They all call handshakes history. But excuse me if I still have my doubts. Before the handshake is forever confined to the dustbin of history, we need to know what is going to take its place.
Human nature, you might have noticed, isn’t built solely on logic. Traditions, even outmoded ones, can sometimes be stubborn things.
If not handshakes, then what? There’s no shortage of candidates in the field right now, inadequate though many of them plainly are.
The hand wave. The head bow. A couple of fists thrown in the air. All those lack the physical contact that humans have craved through history.
The handshake is clearly out of commission for a while. But is there anything that can really replace it?
The fist bump, the hand slap or the high-five? They may be slightly safer, but hand flesh is still pressing hand flesh, and diseases still travel that way.
The cheek kiss, the full hug, the friendly backrub? They’re all more intimate than a standard handshake and, yes, far more “Me Too” combustible.
Then, there’s the foot shake. You think I’m kidding? Google it. I’m not. Toe to toe. Tap-tap. Try not to lose your balance, please. I suppose this one could catch on with ballet dancers and the yoga crowd. But given the fitness level of the average American, don’t expect everyone to be doing it anytime soon.
The handshake is clearly out of commission for a while, but no one can say for certain it is truly gone for good, whatever common sense and the epidemiologists are recommending.
So keep your hands in your pocket till this virus is finally beaten. Then carry a travel-size bottle of Purell — in case we have to shake on it again.
Ellis Henican is an author based in New York City and a former newspaper columnist.