Around the world, humans are struggling to ignore thousands of years of bio-social convention and avoid touching another. Shaking hands might be one of the hardest customs to lose in the post-pandemic world but there are alternatives, writes James Jeffrey. The humble handshake spans the mundane to the potent, ranging from a simple greeting between strangers who will never meet again, to the sealing of billion-dollar deals between business titans.
There are various ideas about the origin of the handshake. It may have originated in ancient Greece as a symbol of peace between two people by showing that neither person was carrying a weapon. Or the shaking gesture of the handshake may have started in Medieval Europe, when knights would shake the hand of others in an attempt to shake loose any hidden weapons. The Quakers are credited with popularising the handshake after they deemed it to be more egalitarian than bowing. The handshake is a “literal gesture of human connectedness,” a symbol of how humans have evolved to be deeply social, tactile-orientated animals, says Cristine Legare, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
With a history tracing back thousands of years, the handshake may be too entrenched to be easily halted. “The fact we went for the elbow bump as an alternative shows how important touch is – we didn’t want to lose that physical connecting,” says Prof Legare. That biological drive to touch and be touched is found in other animals as well. In the 1960s American psychologist Harry Harlow demonstrated how vital touch and affection was for the development of young rhesus monkeys. Other examples from the animal kingdom include our closest cousins: chimpanzees typically touch palms, hug and sometimes kiss as a form of greeting. Giraffes use their necks that can reach two metres in length to engage in a type of behaviour called “necking” – with male giraffes entwining their neck with each other’s and swaying and rubbing to assess the other’s strength and size to establish dominance.
That said, numerous forms of human greeting exist around the world that avoid the transmission trap. Many cultures embrace pressing the palms of hands together with fingers pointing up while accompanied by a slight bow, the traditional Hindu Namaste greeting being one of the most well-known. There have been more recent objections to handshakes that pre-date the coronavirus outbreak: in 2015, a UCLA hospital established a handshake-free zone in its intensive care unit (the UCLA policy only lasted six months). Meanwhile, many Muslim women throughout the world have objected to handshakes based on religious grounds. But despite such reservations and incidences of conscientious objectors to handshakes, as the 20th century progressed the gesture evolved into a near-universal and unassailable symbol of professional greeting. Scientific studies of the ritual have identified how a good handshake activates the same part of the brain that processes other types of reward stimulus such as good food, drink and even sex.
A future without handshakes?
As some states in the US begin to ease lockdown measures, the future of the handshake remains uncertain. “I don’t think we should ever shake hands ever again, to be honest with you,” Dr Anthony Fauci, a key member of the White House coronavirus task force, said back in April. “Not only would it be good to prevent coronavirus disease; it probably would decrease instances of influenza dramatically in this country.” Social distancing guidelines will likely stay in place for a long time to come, according to US government’s guidelines for re-opening the country, especially for vulnerable people like the elderly and those with medical co-morbidities such as lung disease, obesity, and diabetes.
This could give rise to what Stuart Wolf, associate chair for Clinical Integration and Operations at Dell Medical, calls a “science-fiction dystopia” where society would be divided into those who can touch and be touched, and those who must remain isolated. That could create grave psychological consequences, Dr Wolf says. “We already place such a premium on youth and vigour in society, and this forced artificial distinction between the old and infirm and the young and healthy probably will hit some folks very hard.” The urge to reach out – physically – is deeply wired into us. There’s a reason why a US president is estimated to shake hands with 65,000 people per year. “Habits die hard,” says Elke Weber, a professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University who studies how people take risks. “On the other hand, habits and social customs can and do change when the social and economic and, in this case, health context changes, [think of] foot binding in China, which was also an ancient custom.”
There are already lots of non-contact options. Bowing, for example, is already very widely practiced around the world – and has been credited for fewer deaths due to coronavirus in Thailand. Then there is waving, nodding, smiling and myriad hand signals that don’t involve physical contact. But Prof Legare notes that one of Covid-19’s cruel ironies is that it is precisely when humans are faced with stressful circumstances that they depend on human touch. “Think of the ways we respond when people are grieving after death or something bad that’s happened, it is with a hug, or it could just be sitting beside a person and touching a shoulder.” But don’t give up on the humble handshake just yet. While avoiding disease is an essential part of human survival, so is living fulfilling and complex social lives, says Arthur Markman, a professor in the department of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. “Perhaps we start by focusing on more routine handwashing, hand sanitisers, and strategies to avoid touching your face rather than giving up touch altogether,” he says. “The real concern is that we will develop a new normal that is devoid of touch, and so we will not realise what we are missing by not having any tactile contact with the people in our social network.”