In February, had I encountered you at a meeting, in a restaurant or a coffee shop, passing on the street or any other situation, I probably would have greeted you with a smile and a handshake. Or perhaps a hug or even a kiss, if we had that kind of relationship. Today, that is unthinkable.
The new norm is social distance, maintaining 2 metres between yourself and other people.
This, of course, for the very good reason of stopping the spread of COVID-19 and the pandemic it has become. And I fear that the handshake, and the social hug or kiss, will be one of the casualties of this pandemic. When we get to the other side of this, and we will, there will be many new norms and many old norms will have disappeared. The physical greeting is likely one of them.
I like the physical greeting; I will miss it when it is gone. I like it because it is more than just an acknowledgement of the presence of another. That can be accomplished by a simple “Hello”. The handshake takes it up a notch, makes it just a bit more personal. The handshake involves touch, making it a tiny bit intimate. Unlike “hello” which can be said to a group, the handshake is individual, done one at a time. It says something more than hello, it makes a connection.
The origin of the handshake was to let another know that you come in peace.
It originated in the 5th century B.C. in Greece and showed that you were not carrying a weapon. As weapons gradually ceased to be our constant companions, the handshake endured for a different reason. It evolved from a gesture indicating you were not a threat to one indicating you were a friend.
Refusing to shake a hand also sent a message, such as recently when Donald Trump refused to shake Nancy Pelosi’s hand. In early February, as the now almost forgotten impeachment hearings were winding down and Trump was about to give his State of the Union speech, Pelosi held out her hand for the President to shake. Trump refused her offer and launched into his speech. The action and the context behind it could not be more clear. Acrimony between the two had been obvious for months. In refusing to shake her hand, he made the clearest statement possible that “I do not come in peace, I am not your friend”. The moment may have ticked the low in public civility.
But far more frequently, and more importantly too, the handshake has symbolized great moments.
Major agreements, in politics, business and elsewhere are cemented with the handshake. The handshake is the accepted symbol that “we have a deal”. Wagers are made binding by the shaking of hands. Truces are cemented with a handshake. Famous handshakes are immortalized in photos and shared across the world as symbols of peaceful or productive agreements.
What will happen in the new world, post-pandemic? The fist bump is too much associated with sporting events (and Bud Light commercials) to become the successor and is dubious in its ability to prevent the spread of viruses.
The elbow bump, while likely more efficacious, is too awkward to perform. There was also the Wuhan kick, where for a time in Hubei province you stuck out your leg and greeted others instep to instep. My guess is the bow, in some form or another, is likely to be the new go-to greeting. It is simple, easy to perform (for those not suffering from low back issues) and can be executed from a healthy two metre distance. It carries no adverse baggage. It is already practiced in Japan and elsewhere as a form of respectful greeting. One can dress up the bow by placing your hands in prayer position in front of your chest as in the namaste bow. Or dress it down with a simple head nod. Its message conveys peace and friendship, all from a healthy distance.
Of course, for wine-lovers there still remains the clinking together of glasses.
This has been a wonderful way to convey friendship and is a reliable indicator you are not carrying a weapon (at least not in one hand). Its friendship is unmistakable and is often accompanied by “Cheers!” “Santé” “Salud” “Prost” “Cin-Cin” and likely there is one in every language, all offering a sentiment of goodwill. I will miss the handshake; its loss will take a small bite out of the collective civility. I am glad that clinking glasses will remain and be a bridge of friendship and peace that crosses the great divide of this pandemic.