Ignore all the advice I’ve previously espoused regarding the importance of starting and ending each job interview with a firm handshake. Dr. Fauci says that handshaking must stop—even when this pandemic ends—and other medical and public health experts agree. When you shake another person’s hand, you have no idea where that hand has been, and you’re exposing yourself to the very real danger of picking up viruses and bacteria. Therefore, to protect yourself and others, keep your hands to yourself!
The handshake has been around for thousands of years and, by now, is the standard greeting for global politics and business. Depictions of people shaking hands appear in art and literature dating back to ancient Egypt. It was a way of showing you weren’t holding a weapon or hiding one up your sleeve. It signaled good intentions and became a symbol of trust and cooperation, and of cementing relationships. The practice was popularized in 17th-century America by Quakers who preferred it over bowing, curtsying, or tipping a hat. American settlers rejected trappings of Europe’s social hierarchy, and it became a sign of equality to shake hands.
Handshaking comes automatically to many of us. The art of a proper handshake was drummed into me at a young age by my stepfather who would line up all five of us kids to rehearse our technique. We learned that there were many ways a handshake can go wrong. It could be clammy, limp like a dead fish, a bone crusher, or never-ending. We learned that the one-handed shake was always appropriate; but the two-hander could be too much. The handshake can be interpreted as passive, aggressive, assertive, wimpy, or reflecting a lack of interest in interacting. It also could be interpreted as a power play. As a woman in business, I particularly disliked the fingertip-only clasp, almost always perpetrated by a man. I found it insulting. Did he think I couldn’t handle a proper handshake? Many times, over the years, I was complimented by surprised businessmen on my good handshake.
But, going forward, even when we can safely meet in person again, I will need to break my habit of automatically extending my hand to shake in greeting. In a December 2020 Harris Poll conducted for Fast Company, 1,015 participants were asked which COVID trends they hope will continue after the pandemic subsides. Thirty percent of respondents said they’d like to shake hands with other people less often than before the pandemic, and 26% said they wouldn’t want to do so at all. Overall, 54% agreed with the statement, “I would be happy to never shake someone’s hand again” and 54% said they would do so only if required in a formal or professional setting.
What will replace the handshake? A bow is a traditional greeting in many Asian cultures. In Thailand, they practice the “wâi,” a slight bow with palms pressed together as in prayer. It’s similar to India’s “namaste,” a folded hand gesture accompanied by a bow of the head. Observant Jewish and Muslim populations do not touch at all when greeting a member of the opposite sex. On the other extreme, people in European countries such as Italy and France often do the double or triple cheek-kiss (a tradition that also must be avoided in the age of coronavirus). How about popular—much less formal but accepted—greetings like a fist bump or high-five? They may be slightly safer, but hand still is pressing hand, and diseases travel that way. Even long-sleeved elbow bumps may violate the need to remain the recommended minimum of six feet apart.
If you try to shake someone’s hand and they resist (for any reason), it can make either or both parties uncomfortable. It’s better to simply say that it’s a pleasure to see (or meet) them, but you’re following health protocols. Don’t forget to add the good eye contact and a friendly smile.