Editorial: Will COVID-19 kill the handshake?
The handshake as we know it might date back to the 14th century, when knights and soldiers would extend their unclenched right hands toward each other in greeting to show that they were carrying no weapons.
These days, it would seem, the potential weapon isn’t a knife, but the hand itself. Or rather, its propensity for picking up and holding onto microbes from contaminated surfaces, or from our own eyes or noses when we have certain illnesses. Those germs can then be transferred into the hands of the people we greet, while we can pick up their germs. We then will probably touch our own eyes or noses or mouths, potentially sickening ourselves and restarting the cycle.
Now that a novel coronavirus is spreading faster than Russian election propaganda, our hands are being cast in a new, suspicious light. We’re being drilled in handwashing techniques as if we were all second-graders. With liquid hand sanitizers out of stock everywhere, we’re being counseled on how to make our own out of alcohol and aloe vera gel. (Sadly, we may soon need a recipe for rubbing alcohol, which is also disappearing from store shelves.) And lately, the internet has been brimming with suggestions for socially acceptable ways to greet each other that don’t involve passing viruses along blithely from one person to the next.
Could this be the end of the handshake? Come to think of it, if it weren’t such a habit, would we really miss a ritual so often fraught with judgment and calculation? (Too firm? Too limp? How about a hug? Or a nod? )
Last Monday, Germany’s Interior Minister Horst Seehofer waved off Chancellor Angela Merkel as she held out her hand to him; she laughed and praised him for it, and no one seemed worse off. Also that day, U.S. Surgeon Gen. Jerome Adams demonstrated the elbow bump as a less viral way to pass along friendly greetings; Vice President Mike Pence employed that technique on his visit to Washington state on Thursday.
The tradition of clasped hands isn’t the only greeting to undergo new scrutiny. A Maori tribe in New Zealand put the brakes on hongi, the traditional nose-to-nose hello. The French have been advised that the familiar cheek-kissing greeting should be abandoned for now. Maybe people will stop making fun of the Hollywood air kiss, though it’s not a huge improvement health-wise.
One goodwill suggestion making the rounds is putting our hands together namaste-style. Another one: jazz hands, up and wiggling. Oh, we hope not. This is starting to make the 1960s peace sign look good.
COVID-19 is a real threat, and we don’t take lightly the admonitions from health authorities who are trying to control its spread. We may, indeed, need to keep our hands to ourselves for the time being. But we’re not ready to send physical greeting rituals like the handshake into the dustbin of history. Humans crave making a physical connection with friends and often with relative strangers. For now, perhaps, a rueful smile and nod might work as a common acknowledgment of our friendly intentions not to infect or be infected by others.
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