A unique kind of discomfort washes over a person when they muck up a greeting: When one person goes in for a hug and the other one was expecting a kiss. When a high five is left hanging or a smile goes unnoticed. The feeling isn’t so much annoyance as it is embarrassment.
“We use greetings to mark ourselves as one of the group, one of the gang,” says Andy Scott, a former diplomat who has adeptly bowed and bussed on the international stage and who was reached at his home in southeast London. When we fumble a greeting, he says, it’s as if we’ve slipped out of bounds. For a brief moment, we’re on the sidelines.
Thank goodness for the handshake, the Esperanto of greetings. That well-recognised, hard-to-screw-up sign of comity and cooperation. Nice to meet you. We have a deal. It’s been a pleasure. The entirety of human nature is conveyed in a palm-to-palm grip — along with a panoply of contagions.
Our hands have been invested with mystical powers. They speak for us. They reveal our history. To clasp hands is to allow two lives to collide in a brief moment of trust.
We’ve long known that for all its convenience and worth, a handshake was a bobbing Petri dish of germs and grime. But the ick factor didn’t matter because we relied on the handshake to keep civilisation humming along — one gentlemen’s agreement, one political campaign, one lesson in good sportsmanship after another.
Now, as the novel coronavirus has put a halt on industry, press-the-flesh politicking and team athletics, it has also stopped people from shaking hands. Scientists, most notably, Anthony S. Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the United States, have taken this opportunity to lobby for the handshake’s timely death.
Do the white coats know the breadth of what they’re asking?
Our hands have been invested with mystical powers. They speak for us. They reveal our history. A desk jockey’s soft hands immediately distinguish him from a labourer with his calloused palms. To clasp hands is to allow two lives to collide in a brief moment of trust.
It’s doubtful this pandemic will permanently obliterate what previous outbreaks did not. Even Fauci believes our commitment to shaking hands may ultimately be unshakeable. Besides, could anything replace this deeply meaningful gesture?
Trump and handshake
To refuse to shake a person’s hand is a full-blown insult. To be skittish about it is subversive, which is why the US president’s long-harboured aversion is widely known.
Donald Trump’s relationship with this centuries-old practice has taken a series of hairpin turns in the last few years. As a candidate, he resigned himself to its political expediency. In office, he has revelled in prolonged handshakes as a display of nationalistic machismo. And in the opening chapters of the coronavirus pandemic, having warmed to grip-and-grins, Trump stubbornly refused to forgo them as a show of deluded optimism and, well, glad-handing.
“I love the people of this country. You can’t be a politician and not shake hands,” Trump said during a Fox News town hall in March. “I shake anybody’s hand now.”
But finally, with the number of US deaths having surpassed 95,000, he is awkwardly avoiding handshakes with all the finesse of an adolescent manoeuvring through a first date. Earlier this month, on a trip to highlight coronavirus safety, Trump extended his hand to Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, only to retract it in a bait-and-switch and opt for a shoulder pat, which brought the two men nearly nasal passage to nasal passage.
We just can’t seem to stop touching one another as a form of introduction.
Centuries-old cultural and social data points
“As humans, we’ve sort of spread across the world and created different cultures. But nevertheless, we hold onto the original, fundamental purpose of a physical greeting. We’re reaffirming a bond and testing each other,” says Scott, who also wrote One Kiss or Two? The Art and Science of Saying Hello. The handshake “teeters between our competitive and cooperative instincts.”
To forgo the handshake forever is akin to asking humans to cease trying to one-up one another or to stop seeking a kindred spirit. It means erasing centuries of cultural and social data points.
When we extend our hand in peace and fellowship, we’re offering up the strength, intimacy and humanity symbolised by the hand itself. Believers lift up their open hands to God, humbling themselves in a quest for mercy. Laying hands on those who are suffering will give them respite.
Visitors make pilgrimages to the Sistine Chapel, where Adam’s outstretched hand reaches toward the hand of a life-giving Creator. In death, Christians hope to sit at the right hand of God — the place of honour and glory.
The hand has “become a symbol of salutation, supplication, and condemnation ... it has come to be symbolic or representative of the whole person in art, in drama and in the dance,” writes the late anthropologist Ethel J. Alpenfels in The Anthropology and Social Significance of the Human Hand. Her 1955 paper notes that Immanuel Kant called the hand “man’s outer brain.”
We’ve come to associate the right hand with good and the left with evil, with strength and weakness. People wear a medallion shaped like a right hand to ward off evil. A man buttons his shirt to the right; a woman buttons to the left. (The patriarchy is written in everything.) And so, we greet others with our right hand even if we’re left-handed.
The origins of the handshake
Hands read for those who can’t see and speak for those who are mute. Our hands, some believe, predict our future with a life line etched in our palm. Hands tell the truth about our age when most every other indicator can be obscured, at least for a time, with artifice, diligence and Botox.
When we shake hands with strangers, we’re presenting our whole selves to them and in mere seconds asking: Are we equal? Are you reliable? Are you a worthy adversary? Are we the same kind of people — good people?
The origins of the handshake have been traced to medieval Europe, when knights extended their hand to show they were unarmed. The greeting was popularised by the Quakers who embraced it as a more egalitarian alternative to a bow. Thomas Jefferson is said to have been a great champion of the handshake and what it represented — at least in theory.
It’s a gender-neutral greeting. The old-fashioned custom of a man kissing the hand of a woman was less a show of respect and more a display of dominance. And it was a resonant moment in 1964, when president Lyndon Johnson symbolically shook hands with Martin Luther King, Jr. after signing the civil rights bill.
The power is not in the shaking up and down; it’s the hand-to-hand intimacy. Touch builds trust. We rate that touch. Is the grip strong or crushing? Firm or weak? We use these bits of information — overuse them, in some cases — to make an assessment about integrity. The end of this act might free us from these superficial judgements about sweaty palms and dead-fish grips. And, of course, we could stop spreading so many germs.
The microscopic grotesquery has been clear since the beginning of the 20th century. In 1929, Leila Given, a nurse who had recently attended a large convention, wrote about having seen a woman sneezing and coughing into her right hand and then using it to greet other guests. The appalled nurse later had students try to compute how many people the woman might have slimed with her viral load.
“One may well ask why sanitary America persists in a custom which has nothing to justify it from the sanitary standpoint, but national customs are not easily abolished,” Given wrote in the American Journal of Nursing. “That handshaking may ever disappear from our midst may be doubted, and our only hope lies in the education of people to a realisation of the danger of hand-transmitted infections, and to the use of those preventive measures which lie within the realm of personal hygiene.” In other words, wash your hands.
It’s doubtful that those Americans who see face masks as unpatriotic, oppressive and a sign of weakness will cotton to ‘namaste’.
Ninety-one years later, we are still swapping germs with abandon and indoctrinating children into our nasty habit as a rite of passage into civilised society.
It may be that adults will never be able to quit the handshaking habit. But perhaps children can still be reached with a substitute.
Scott offers the namaste posture, where you press your palms together in prayer, which recognises that God is in everyone. “It’s a lovely gesture,” he says. But it’s doubtful that those Americans who see face masks as unpatriotic, oppressive and a sign of weakness will cotton to “namaste,” with its roots in Hinduism and association with yoga culture.
The elbow bump can be awkward to execute and breaks the rules of social distancing. A smile and a wave? Smiles stimulate some of the same feel-good chemicals in the brain that a touch does, but they go unseen behind a mask.
A wave certainly shows that one has come unarmed, but can a wave solidify a contract? American Sign Language uses arms crossed in front of the chest to denote a hug — a stance that informed the Wakanda salute from Black Panther. But it’s a gesture that might be too intimate for a professional setting.
Handshakes have endured because they encapsulate human aspirations, braggadocio and vulnerabilities. We extend our grubby paws across the void in a display of trust. And while this crisis has caused us to put that symbolism on hold, history suggests that when the tide abates, we’ll eventually trust each other again.
— Robin Givhan is a staff writer and The Washington Post's fashion critic.