I shook hands with someone. And you can too! | Editor’s notebook


I shook hands with a man the other day.

He was a former colleague whom I had not seen for a few years. When we saw each other, we smiled and I instinctively raised my hand up to my waist, my thumb raised at a right angle. He returned the gesture and we hugged, canvas to canvas.

There was something so familiar about the custom, and yet, with the idea that our hands carried a potentially lethal cocktail of germs that had been firmly implanted in our heads over the past year, so illicit.

“Shake hands again?” I asked.

“I think we are,” he replied.

We both agreed it felt good.

Obituaries have been written for the handshake since the universal and must-have greeting was abruptly exiled in March 2020 after some very smart and influential people suggested it be made history.

At the start of the pandemic, Dr Anthony Fauci, whose role as the country’s infectious disease expert turned him into an American hero overnight, questioned whether shaking hands was a good idea and said : “I don’t think we should ever shake hands again, to be honest with you.

The handshake, according to the obituaries, was survived by the elbow bump, foot tremor, peace sign, wave, and heard nod.

But reports of the handshake’s death, like that of Mark Twain and Bob Barker, have been greatly exaggerated.

The pandemic has taught us a lot of things about our way of living and approaching public health hygiene. We would be wise to keep many of them nearby.

We have learned, for example, that wearing a mask is incredibly helpful in stopping the spread of respiratory disease – as people in many Asian countries have known for decades.

We have also learned that constant and thorough hand washing is a good thing, as is staying home after work or school if you are sick.

But the pandemic has also taught us that the nudges, foot tremors, peace signs, waves and nods heard do not replace the human connection made with the handshake. They just aren’t the real thing.

The handshakes solidified peace treaties, sealed trade deals, exemplified grace in victory and defeat, and taught each a thing or two about the person on the other end of our grip. They are windows to the soul.

The dead fisherman? We can’t trust him. The bone crusher? He is pompous. The gripper at your fingertips? She has arthritis. The fist bump, characterized by a vaporous meeting of the knuckles, reveals nothing.

We have known for a long time that hands are Petri dishes of germs and grime. But shaking hands is neglecting the grime factor for the sake of trusting and feeling each other.

Is it stupid? Good doctors who recommend removing the handshake might think so. But I don’t think they understand what they are asking for.

An exception is Dr. Herbert L. Fred, a physician from Houston. He opposed proposals from some hospitals to ban handshakes.

It’s not that Fred doesn’t buy into the science that handshakes can transmit pathogens. The science is unequivocal. Some research suggests that replacing the handshake with a punch reduces the transmission of bacteria by 90%.

But writing in the Texas Heart Institute Journal in 2015, Fred called the ban on handshaking in healthcare facilities a “back door” that makes patients and doctors appear to be harming each other.

“I see the ban as a loophole, a decision that misses the point,” Fred wrote in the post. “The problem is not the handshake; it’s the handshake.

What is needed, he said, is more diligent handwashing on the part of everyone, but especially the doctors.

“No other gesture of greeting can replicate the benefits of a firm handshake,” Fred wrote. “The handshake has long been, and still is, an invaluable liaison tool.”

The earliest recorded handshake is believed to have been carved into a limestone dais in the mid-9th century BCE, depicting Assyrian King Shalmaneser III hand-in-hand with a Babylonian ally. Homer described the handshakes in “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” as displays of confidence. The folded hands were stamped on ancient Roman coins.

The gesture, argues Ella Al-Shamahi, paleontologist and actress and author of “The Handshake: A Gripping History”, is more biological than cultural. “It’s programmed into our DNA” she recently wrote in The Guardian.

I think she might be right.

When I reached out to my former colleague, I did so by reflex. But it was more than an old habit.

Throughout the pandemic, I have consciously resisted the handshake. This time, however, there was something primary about the movement. I didn’t realize I had held out my hand until our hands met and the feeling reminded me how much I wanted this interaction. I subconsciously think I wanted to touch him.

The handshake has its dangers, disease transmission being the main one.
But they also come with expectations – holding on tight, making eye contact – and can lead to a person’s mistaken first impressions.

This dead fisherman? He could be the father of the year. This bone crusher. Maybe he’s just really strong. That pinch with your fingertips? Maybe she’s royalty.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that touch matters and our impulse to reach out is natural. Start over and you will see.

I now wash my hands of the question.

David Andreatta is the editor-in-chief of CITY. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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