Hand grasping no more

The handshake is a common worldwide greeting, but will we continue to shake hands after the quarantine ends?  With most people using gloves and a mask, the germ transferring ritual of a handshake has disappeared despite the cultural significance.

“The handshake wasn’t born out of courtesy or goodwill, but fear,” said Pamela Eyring, president of the Protocol School of Washington that offers training in business etiquette and communications skills around the world.

The handshake has existed in some form for thousands of years.  Some say the gesture started as a way to convey peaceful intentions. When extending an empty right hand, you showed that you were not holding a weapon and came in peace.  A handshake could also be a symbol of good faith when sealing a promise.

The earliest documentation of a handshake was found on a ninth century B.C. relief with the Assyrian King Shalmaneser III shaking hands with a Babylonian ruler to seal a pact. In fourth and fifth century B.C., the gesture can be found on Greek funerary art.  In ancient Rome, the handshake showed loyalty and friendship.

Historians believe that the handshake became popular in the 17th century with Quakers who viewed the gesture more equitable than the tip of a hat.  Etiquette guides in the 1800s included proper instruction on how to give a perfect handshake.

“When shaking hands—or, rather, taking the hand—grasp it firmly, do not take merely the fingersAmong friends the shaking of the hand is the most genuine and cordial expression of good-will.”  The Ladies’ and Gentlemen’s Etiquette, 1877.

Many predict as the virus comes under control, we will go back to our old ways of handshaking given the length of time the greeting has been around.  This practice is one of the few appropriate ways of connecting in a professional setting that imparts a first impression.

However, the pandemic may be the impetus to reconsider.  Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House coronavirus task force, has a recommendation for Americans.  “I don’t think we should ever shake hands ever again, to be honest with you. Not only would it be good to prevent coronavirus disease; it probably would decrease instances of influenza dramatically in this country.”

The trick may be to come up with some alternatives.  We could adopt namaste, the Hindu greeting, which is a slight bow of the head with palms pressed together at the chest. In the Middle East, putting your hand over your heart is a common greeting.  The fist, foot and elbow bumps have also been recommended.

As we wait to see if the handshake makes a healthy comeback, we should all use caution in the meantime and adopt whichever greeting we feel the safest and most comfortable as an offer of camaraderie.

Written by Cathy Heyne, GMS-T, Managing Director