Oh, well my hand is shaky and my knees are weak
I can’t seem to stand on my own two feet.
Who do you thank when you have such luck
I’m in love, I’m all shook up.
All Shook Up, by Elvis Presley
One year ago, it was still very common for us to walk up to a friend or business associate, put out our right hand in a gesture of friendship, grasp their hand, and pump it a few times enthusiastically. This handshake, though not the way everyone greets others around the world, is one of the most common ways of doing so worldwide.
What is the origin of the handshake? Wikipedia tells us that as early as the 5th century BCE in Greece, handshakes were seen as symbols of peace, and most importantly showed that the parties doing the greeting were not carrying any weapons. The Romans took the lowly handshake a step further grasping the entire forearm, once again to look for hidden knives or other weapons. The knights of medieval Europe did the same thing, shaking the hand and arm of challengers vigorously to loosen anything deadly. Another word for handshake is dexiosis, if you’re into Scrabble. Another bit of trivia for you. Stephen Potter of St. Albans shook 19,550 hands at the St. Albans Carnival in August 1987, breaking the world record. As the famed Guinness Book retired that particular category, the record has since been broken, but Potter holds the European record.
What did a handshake mean to us in the days before March 2020, the pre-pandemic times? I don’t think we were often looking for weapons when we greeted a friend with a good fist pump, but we certainly wanted to convey closeness, warmth, sincerity and greeting. You normally shake hands with someone you trust, or at least can respect. (Remember all those celebrated Middle East peace accords, with two opposing leaders shaking hands on a podium, a beaming United States President standing in the middle?) Handshakes can seal a deal, signify a completed contract, and show that it is okay to move closer. Unfortunately, these days we are doing fewer in person deals, and we have very little reason to want to get within arm’s reach of anyone that has a different last name than we do. Handshakes help us meet and greet, say goodbye, congratulate, and express our gratitude.
Are there other ways to do all those things that do not involve grasping hands? Of course. Again, Wikipedia tells us that The New Zealand Maori touch noses, and Ethiopian men touch shoulders. In the Congo friends touch foreheads. In Asian countries, bowing is an acceptable form of greeting though they will shake hands with Americans and others if they think that is expected.
Why might this be important now, in 2021? Handshakes spread germs. Cold germs. Flu germs. Coronavirus germs. With the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, as well as with the pandemic we are now living through, alternative ways of greeting one another have been strongly encouraged. Elbow bumps, head nods, bows, and fist bumps can all be seen across the land. Having traveled to Japan and also having seen how South Korea and other Asian countries approach this dilemma, I am partial to their solutions. Wash your hands, wear a mask anytime you are outside in the public, stay several feet apart, and bow to greet one another. Safe, easy, respectful and not conducive to viral spread. Why do you think that many of us have adopted the elbow bump over other methods of saying hello? Because we crave human contact. We crave touch. We are hardwired that way. This last year has been so very stressful in so very many ways, not the least of which is its toll on our emotional and physical connections with each other, individually and within our social institutions.
Is there a post-pandemic future for the handshake? Some, like Dr. Anthony Fauci, said early on in the pandemic last year that he thought maybe we should never shake hands ever again. I’m not sure how realistic that will turn out to be. However, I know that when the all clear is given, there will be smiling, laughing, tears, hugs and kisses, and I don’t see how a few handshakes can be far behind. In the meantime, think like a Roman or a Medieval knight, assume there are deadly weapons in that outstretched hand, and bow instead.