New Normal: Will COVID-19 mark the death of the handshake?
TORONTO -- The handshake has endured for millennia. It has ended wars, sealed deals that have built economies, and forged alliances that have changed the course of history.
Shaking hands is standard in almost all areas of human endeavour in western culture, including business, sports, politics, and religion.
We shake hands to say hello, goodbye and congratulations, to demonstrate respect, loyalty, trust, co-operation, and to signal our confidence and character to strangers, acquaintances, friends and even foes.
But could the handshake be a thing of the past thanks to COVID-19?
Public health experts, most notably Dr. Anthony Fauci, a member of the White House pandemic taskforce, have pondered that it’s time the handshake be squeezed out in favour of reducing the transmission of viruses and bacteria.
After all, many of us don’t generally practise proper hand hygiene, resulting in petri dishes at the end of our arms that efficiently spread germs.
The once-innocent handshake is all of a sudden at the forefront of an urgent infection control debate.
“I think what we’re going to have embedded and imprinted in us forever is the realization that something as catastrophic as what the world is experiencing now can happen," Fauci, an infectious diseases expert, was reported as saying to a reporter earlier this month.
“We don’t need to shake hands. We’ve got to break that custom because, as a matter of fact, that is really one of the major ways that you can transmit a respiratory-borne illness.”
Fauci said on a Wall Street Journal podcast that he acknowledges the death of handshake isn’t coming any time soon. But at least it should be on life support in the short term, he said.
"When you gradually come back, you don't jump into it with both feet," Fauci said about easing physical distancing restrictions. "You say, what are the things you could still do and still approach normal? One of them is absolute compulsive hand-washing. The other is you don't ever shake anybody's hands."
Fauci isn’t the first to want to drop the handshake. Doctors at UCLA said in 2014 that the practice should be banned from health-care settings.
There are plenty of options, from slight bows with hands pressed together in the tradition of the namaste greeting, to elbow bumps, foot taps, nods, thumbs up, pats on the back, and sign language gestures. Some are advocating for the return of the bow or the curtsy to signal respect or adopting a hand-over-the-heart approach of some cultures in which it’s frowned upon for men and women to touch.
Science says just about anything is better than the handshake.
Scientists at Aberystwyth University in Wales found that when they coated rubber gloves in a thick layer of E. coli, handshakes passed on 90 per cent more germs than a fist bump and were about twice as unhygienic as a high five. A strong handshake was particularly adept at sharing bacteria, the 2014 study published in the American Journal of Infection Control found.
COVID-19 is an opportunity to trade in politeness for safety, wrote Brian Labus, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “(M)aybe we will see the refusal to shake hands not as a snub, but as an expression of genuine concern for each other’s health.”
THE HANDSHAKE'S HISTORY
There is no doubt handshaking is deeply embedded in human history.
Shaking hands is believed by some historians to go back to tribal times when approaching strangers or acquaintances would put out their right hand to show they were not reaching for their swords. The up-and-down movement would then shake free any weapons hidden up a sleeve.
Depictions of handshakes go back as far as 9th century B.C. and clasped hands have become universal symbols of human connection and unity, whether romantic, economic, sporting, political, religious, or compassionate.
Kisses also have a deep history in early Christian religious ceremonies. In the Middle Ages, a kiss was a sign of fidelity and used to seal property deals. One or more kisses on each cheek are a standard greeting in much of the world.
Behavioural scientists have pondered that handshakes and kisses as greetings are precisely meant to signify a level of trust; as in, this is someone with whom I’m willing to share germs.
Just as enduring as the customs are the warnings of health authorities urging suspension of these displays in times of disease outbreaks.
The kiss custom – la bise – was banned in England and France in the 14th century to fight the plague and didn’t really return for several centuries. It was also suspended in 2009 over the swine flu.
As the new coronavirus – SARS-CoV-2 – gained a foothold, health officials around the world urged people to stop handshakes and social kissing.
And the Emily Post Institute, an authority on etiquette in the U.S., is rolling back decades of advice to always accept a handshake or an approaching hug. The institute recommends saying, “I’m keeping distance right now, but I’m happy to see you.”
Of course, the jury is out on whether physical distancing restrictions that are necessary in the months until an outbreak of COVID-19 is under control will result in permanent change.
Pandemics in history have mobilized short-term radical behaviour, but have never resulted in fundamental shifts in how humans connect or communicate, says Samuel Veissière, an assistant professor of psychiatry at McGill University.
“Tribal psychology” is imprinted on the human species, he says, and manifests in physical displays such as grasping hands, hugs and kisses. “There may be a temporary interruption but then we’ll settle back to normal behaviour.”
We are a social species that require touch and connection to maintain physical and emotional health, says Veissière.
“It’s impossible to believe people won’t touch each other any longer.”
But just as tuberculosis ended the widespread practice of spitting in public, repeated public health advisories about handshakes could make people think twice about doing that with strangers, says Veissière.
“They might become a stronger demonstration of trust. We may be more selective about who we shake hands with or the occasion on which we shake hands.”
'A TRADITION LIKE NO OTHER'
So what could that mean for interactions in business and sports?
Business communication consultant Stacey Hanke says handshakes are an effective and efficient means of making a positive impression.
She says this wildfire virus will put the handshake on hold until a vaccine is available, but Hanke doesn’t expect it to die out permanently. Humans are too resistant to change, she says.
In the meantime, there are still powerful ways to connect in business settings without pressing flesh, says Hanke.
“If you make eye contact with someone and look them dead in the eye while you talk to them, you will make them feel like the most important person in the world during your interaction,” says Hanke, who lives in Chicago.
“I think not shaking hands will force us to be stronger socially. We will have to put in the effort to show we care.”
Hockey historian Liam Maguire is sad to think that the NHL tradition of lining up to shake hands after a game is over.
He’s traced that custom back to an all-star game in 1908 and says it’s now practised in minor and amateur games at all levels across the country.
“I will be a real shame to see it end in the NHL because it’s a tradition like no other in sports. A glove tap just won’t be the same.”
But Amy Hanser doesn’t share that fondness for the handshake.
“I’ve always found handshakes an awkward and somewhat male form of communication,” says Hanser, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of British Columbia.
“Perhaps they will become stigmatized if there is enough public health messaging about the risks.”
But Hanser doesn’t think there will be broader enduring holdovers on social proximity once the health emergency eases.
“The requirements of social distancing are really demanding. I think people will be happy to go back to normal.”
She says the experience in Wuhan illustrates that.
“When restrictions were lifted there, people were hugging in the streets. It’s deeply internalized in us to connect through touching.”
Ultimately, the long-term effects of this pandemic will be far from universal, says Toronto relationship counsellor Bradley Foster. Some people will become germaphobes, refuse to shake hands, and will carry on with some form of social distancing.
“I think there will be some who cloister themselves. If you came into this with fear, this will only amplify it.”
But others will jump back into crowds and physical connection quickly, like they’ve been freed from a cage. This experience of isolation will increase their need for touch, whether hugging, kissing on the cheek, or the age-old gripping of palms.
“The handshake has been around so long, it’s hard to imagine it disappearing. Some will no longer do it, but for many it’s instinctual.”
CTVNews.ca's "New Normal" series looks at how life will change in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Edited by Senior Web Producer Mary Nersessian