The Death of the Handshake

4 min read

People greeting each other with a bow

The term “new normal” has been getting thrown around a lot lately, and despite the cliché, it seems like a pretty good way to sum up post-quarantine life. What we now consider normal is quite different from what we’re used to: first-run movies can be streamed at home, the possibility of sporting events played in empty venues, you can only buy one pack of Charmin at a time—and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

We also probably won’t be shaking hands much anymore, which is mostly a relief for me. While I was trained in the art of the handshake from a young age (firm grip, look ‘em in the eye, don’t give up too early), I usually dread them on account of my freezing palms. This leads me to shake hands like Macho Man Randy Savage, and can have a similar effect to a joy buzzer on anyone not anticipating an ice cube with fingers. Needless to say, I won’t miss that.

But shaking hands is a cultural norm with deep roots, and nobody—especially the steel-fisted grandpas of the world—expect it to disappear quietly. So how deep does this tradition go?

Why We Shake Hands

While the practice has been around for thousands of years—probably dating back to cavemen—the handshake has rarely been used as a formal greeting until the last two centuries. In ancient Greece, people clasped hands to signify an important pact or agreement. In ancient Rome, they did it to show nobody held a dagger up their sleeve. In 19th century France, it was an irreverent, laid-back British import used like a high-five by the lower rungs of society—but never at a formal occasion.

There may be a more primal reason for shaking hands, too. Plenty of research has been done into whether or not human handshakes are involved with social chemosignaling, which is a fancy way of saying transferring and recognizing each other’s scents. Sounds strange, but it does lend credence to the idea that shaking hands might be a biological function that can subliminally change our behavior.

Unfortunately, with the current microscopic threat to our daily lives, we’re going to have to put the chemosignaling on hold for a while. That presents a new problem: What physical gesture should now accompany a formal hello?

A Few Thoughts on Handshake Alternatives

While it’s RIP handshakes, they aren’t the only cultural casualty of COVID-19. That French double-cheek kiss thing (la bise for the cultured) is definitely out. So is the common Middle Eastern greeting of bumping noses. That means as a global society, we have a lot of folkways to replace. But luckily, there are a few good alternatives.

Enter the bow. It’s been big in Japan for hundreds of years and for good reason: it’s simple, sanitary, and harkens back to the samurai culture that was so foundational to the country. It’s also a great way to show others how much you respect them without saying a word. Just think: A short, sloppy bow could be the new dead fish handshake.

The salute—or the less formal hat tip—are also good options. The key is not touching your face, which should be absolutely no problem assuming you’re wearing a stylish cowboy hat.

Fist or elbow bumps could also work, but since they involve physical contact, they violate social distancing rules. These options might be relegated to the edgier parts of society, but as we see coronavirus fears continue to abate, they may find their way back into the mainstream.

If you’re looking for a more sincere approach, consider putting your hand over your heart as a way of saying hello. Another sincere choice—popular among yoga practitioners for many years—is to use “namaste” prayer hands.

But my favorite option is to go full Game of Thrones, which means jamming your sword into the ground while taking a knee in full chain mail to greet your boss. Sadly, that one is a logistical nightmare, so we’ll have to leave it to the knights of Westeros.

Where Do We Go from Here?

The new normal has brought on plenty of changes—some simple and easy, others not so much. But chances are good that unless you’re a career politician, the disappearance of the handshake won’t bother you all that much. While there might be a few warm-handers out there who insist on rubbing palms, it certainly won’t be the standard anymore—and there’s no shame in politely asking them to take a bow.