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.
Sanitary conventions like fist-bumps and elbow taps just don’t quite cut the mustard when it comes to human connectivity.
Whenever they occur there is always an internalised complicit knowledge of how they go against the grain of intuitive friendliness, notes Steven Pinker, Harvard University’s Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology, in an article for The Harvard Gazette, the university’s official news website.
“That explains why, at least in my experience, people accompany these gestures with a little laugh, as if to reassure each other that the superficially aggressive displays are new conventions in a contagious time and offered in a spirit of camaraderie,” Prof Pinker says.
Due to her work in public health, including infectious diseases, Deliana Garcia was already moving away from handshakes with most people. But some habits are harder to break than others.
“I am a fanatical hugger,” says Ms Garcia, noting social distancing with her 85-year-old mother has been particularly hard.
“She is so close, and I just want to walk up to her and smooch her little face and give her a kiss and tell her I love her.”
This powerful urge collides with concerns about transmission, resulting in an “awkward dance” between the two of them, she says.
“Even as she is approaching, I can feel myself growing anxious – what if I make her sick?” Ms Garcia says. “So I withdraw, but if she starts to move away, I follow. I need the tactile to assure myself and yet I can’t let her get close. We sort of repel one another like identical poles on magnets.”
As hard as a future without handshakes or touch may be, it is better than the alternative, Prof Weber says. “I don’t think people are overreacting at this point, quite the opposite.”
“Survival or trying to stay alive is another important basic human drive. The alternative is to go back to life as we knew it and ignore the fact that large numbers of elderly, overweight and people with co-morbidities will die until we establish herd immunity, which will take considerable time.”
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.”
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