The Future of Handshakes

They can be facetiously firm or ludicrously light, annoyingly long or snobbishly short, rapidly reassuring or instantly unnerving. They belong to various categories – political, commercial, sporting, and personal – and until a couple of months ago, constituted an ubiquitous appendage of modern civilisation.

And yet, with the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic and the consequent social distancing measures enforced across the world, they have become the latest entrant into the endangered pool of social etiquettes. They are the enigmatic gesture all of us seemed to have taken for granted – the oh-so-unnecessarily necessary handshakes.

“In order to display a friendly, non-threatening intent, animals often evolve a display that is the joint-for-joint, muscle-for-muscle opposite for their display of aggression. In the case of humans, too, friendly display tends to be the antithesis of threatening ones: our hands are open rather than clenched, our arms are supinated, we approach the other person closely instead of keeping the wary distance of two fighters, and we expose vulnerable body parts…” forms the evolutionary Darwinian explanation behind handshakes.

Estimated to have originated in ancient Greece around the fifth century BC, the grasping of hands is not only the most common form of greeting across the globe, but it has, over time, morphed into a gesture that communicates trust, respect, and agreement, irrespective of whether it is executed to wrap up a business deal, confirm the signing of a treaty, or culminate a rendezvous with a stranger at the pub.

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Handshakes have always been accompanied by a peculiarly primordial awkwardness for me. There was the time when I was bemused after being told by a middle-aged woman that my handshake was “unusually weak for a man”; the numerous occasions in school when I would be tricked by a friend stretching out a hand only to withdraw it at the last moment and run it through their hair, followed by uproarious laughter at having deceived me; the day when a senior I looked up to in college sidestepped my proposed handshake that kept me suspended between confusion and indignation; the cold January evening in Kolkata four years ago when an even colder Boris Johnson (then the foreign secretary of the UK) shook my hand while looking at someone else at a British Council gathering.

Considering all these less-than-stellar moments and the internal dilemmas I have usually faced (how long, how hard?) before offering my hand, a part of me is delighted that handshakes might be on the verge of being outlawed. But is it really possible that a practice that has transformed into a social instinct will no longer prevail once we emerge into a post-COVID-19 world order?

Imagine if the now iconic handshake between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev at the 1985 Geneva Summit had been an enthusiastic fist bump. Or if, in 1994, the outgoing President of South Africa, Frederik Willem de Klerk had nonchalantly tapped the foot of his successor, Nelson Mandela, in place of the reluctant handshake that the two men actually shared in a historic moment for their nation.

There is no doubt that the absence of the handshake, should it materialise, will be glaring in political optics. Not every world leader, after all, is as agreeable to a bear hug (which may also be contentious for a post-pandemic planet) as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Maybe, politicians and diplomats will mimic another of Modi’s trademark salutations –  the Indian habit of namaste which, by avoiding physical contact, triggers none of the consternations around health that invariably surround the handshake today.

In informal sectors, the handshake might meet a more natural demise. If I do not shake the hand of my best friend, neither of us could care less about it. But what about first-time meetings and instances when a handshake would have previously been customary? What if my prospective employer leans in for a handshake just before glancing through my resume? Am I supposed to enunciate the latest WHO circular to justify not following suit? Or mutter some excuse about the flu, sotto voce? Perhaps there will be the realisation on both sides that shaking hands is no longer required, that presumptuous assessments of individuals can now be made through non-tactile messaging and body language, like looking into each other’s eyes for subliminal signals (the eyes never lie, or so Ruskin Bond would have us believe).

“As a society, just forget about shaking hands, we don’t need to shake hands…we’ve gotta break that custom…that is really one of the major ways you can transmit a respiratory-borne illness,” said Dr Anthony Fauci in early April, the American physician supervising his country’s response to COVID-19.

According to Nicky Milner, director of medical education at Anglia Ruskin university, humans, on average, carry 3,200 bacteria from 150 different species on their hands and the average person shakes their hand 15,000 times in their lifetime. The inference from the data is clear- refraining from handshakes makes scientific sense, more so while re-entering public spaces once the coronavirus has been tamed.

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In 1439, as the bubonic plague was engulfing Britain, King Henry VI banned the ritual of a kiss on the cheek when greeting someone. Whether state governments or international organisations will explicitly disallow handshakes once we all come out of our homes remains to be seen, but there is no reason that a handshake-free world should not be encouraged.

Dispensing with the perceptual ambiguities as well as the health hazards involved in handshaking may be a vital step towards modifying our orientations in a world that must be more aware than it was before the pandemic unleashed havoc. It may even kick-start the vehicle of adaptability we all need to be driving in order to adjust to the demands of a society that has been rocked, and requires overhauling in multiple ways, from institutional resurgence to individual cooperation to gesticulatory alterations.

There may not be a one-act-fits-all replacement for handshakes, but that is hardly cause for despair, for greater individuality can come across in our future encounters with people, removing our reliance on a singular act that does not appeal uniformly across personalities and cultures.

Understanding that we are flexible to new possibilities within the fundamentally human realm of interpersonal engagement may pave the way for a new form of interaction where the superficial handshakes are relegated to a relic, allowing us to revive the more abstract qualities of communication that have long fallen out of touch.

Priyam Marik is a post-graduate student of journalism at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom.

Featured image credit: Claudio Schwarz/Unsplash