Words of Wisdom: What’s to Become of the Handshake?


By Neal Lemery

Social change can come slowly or astonishingly fast. In the blink of an eye, we now have “personal distancing”, quarantine, and the closing down most of our social interactions.
The customary handshake, a greeting, a sign of making a deal, and a goodbye, now seems archaic, certainly out of fashion. Not to mention it is medically unwise. We stand apart in those now rare and cherished social interactions and nod from behind our masks, wave, or simply smile. Touching is forbidden, and getting close is an affront not only to the new social norms, but also to medical science and public health.

Two months ago, I greeted an old friend with an elbow bump, before new public health rules directed an even further separation and changes in how we live in society. Common social interactions at the post office and grocery store include a plastic barrier and markings on the floor between us. The barista at the drive-through coffee kiosk and I chat behind our masks and gloves. Still friendly, still neighborly, but distant, removed from the full connection experience I really want.

Not every culture shakes hands as a greeting and a sign of friendship and camaraderie. In Roman and medieval times, a handshake was a sign of peace, as we carried swords in our right hands. Romans actually felt each other’s sleeves, as men would hide daggers there if they meant to do harm.

Other cultures rely instead on polite bows, nods, and smiles, or by placing our palms together and bowing. In some cultures, only men shake hands. Various fraternal organizations have ritualized handshaking. Boy Scouts use a left-handed shake (which, in ancient times, meant you had to put down your shield).

In some countries, a kiss on the cheek is preferred, or a handshake followed by putting your hand over your heart.

I’m sure that during the Black Plague, the Influenza of 1918, and other pandemics, the shaking of hands was abandoned as a danger to our lives. Yet, the need for human touch and contact revitalized the custom. Will the malicious traits of Covid19 change that thinking, leading us to characterize handshaking as a societal taboo?

Now, I greet friends in the grocery store by a nod behind my mask, with the hope that my eyes can somehow convey my smile. We maintain our personal distancing, yet manage to exchange our news, and the ever more important question of the times, “How are you doing?”

I’ve been having “coffee dates” with friends on my laptop, as we learn the nuances and etiquette of video conferencing. My canceled college reunion became a virtual cocktail party. We laugh and tell stories, but I do miss the chemistry of really being “together”.

Virtual committee and board meetings are more efficient, but I don’t feel that buzz of excitement and common purpose that happens when we are all in the same room. Still, this new virtual reality is saving lives and strengthens our community and the world. I can’t argue against these altruistic humanistic goals. Not shaking hands is a very small act of common action these days.

As our world begins its transition to “opening up”, how will we greet each other? Will the handshake become an anachronism, abandoned in the interest of community health and social well-being?

We should experiment and see what feels right for us, in these times of needing connections and building community spirit. I think I’d vote for the hand over the heart, as we are needing a lot of love about now.