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Ben there, done that

Could COVID kill the handshake?

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Due to the pandemic situation affecting our world, many of our social conventions have been altered to suit the current situation. We have implemented social distancing, employed the use of masks and numerous other changes to daily life; however, no other convention has been impacted as much as the humble and eternally popular handshake.

There is something that seems so familiar and natural about shaking hands. Despite the many alternatives that have been proposed including elbow bumps, tapping shoes together and air handshakes, there has yet to be a truly suitable replacement to this age-old tradition. Someone has put together a montage of world leaders and celebrities going in for handshakes before quickly remembering not to do them. I found it quite comical, but it does highlight just how second nature this gesture is for most of us.

A handshake is a symbol of respect, co-operation and agreement. A study was conducted by Michael Norton and Francesca Gino, for the Harvard School of Business, that looked at purchase negotiations taking place at a used car lot. When an exchange or interaction started with a handshake, the result was far more likely to be one where both parties were happy with the outcome. In other words, a handshake contributed significantly to creating win-win scenarios. It is somewhat incredible that the pressing together of palms has such an effect.

The origins of the handshake dates back to the fifth century in ancient Greece. The prevailing theory about the creation is that a handshake was a gesture of goodwill and peace. The open palms coming together meant that neither party could hold a weapon while shaking hands. This practice quickly proliferated around the ancient world in Greek and Roman cultures, which then spread to the western world. 

Alongside the handshake, spread another greeting, closely associated with the French, called “Faire la bise.”  This is the practice of kissing cheeks as a form of greeting. This practice remains reasonably popular, especially in the countries located in the footprint of the ancient Roman Empire, with one very notable exception, and this exception has me wondering about the future of the handshake.

The year was 1439, and a plague was spreading across Europe. Back in those days, knowledge of infectious diseases was not exactly what would be called “advanced.” Just for reference, letting leeches feed on sick people was a common “treatment” for many ailments at the time; however, primitive as the medical understanding of the time might have been, it didn’t take much to notice that the plague was transmitted by people who came into contact with each other. In order to curtail the further spread of disease, Henry VI issued a ban on kissing cheeks. While the ban eventually came to an end, the practice of kissing never fully recovered in English culture and eventually faded out. 

I am left wondering if a similar fate could befall the classic handshake. It didn’t take a long absence for “Faire la bise” to fall out of fashion. Will this absence trigger some kind of fall from grace for the handshake or will old habits and conventions remain strong? What might come to replace it? The ideal candidate would have to create that instant bond and foundation of trust that is intrinsic to the utility of a handshake. At the same time, this new gesture would also have to be devoid of the germ and bacteria exchange that has caused the handshake to fall out of favor. 

While I do think it is unlikely that the handshake will make a full exit from the common culture, I would argue there is now space and the potential for a new social convention to take root. The longer this COVID-19 situation drags out, the more a gap is left for a replacement to move in. Only time will tell.

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