Will we EVER shake hands again?
Since the coronavirus outbreak there has been a renewed interest in handshaking.
Articles have appeared in publications including The Atlantic, National Geographic, and The Guardian, asking whether this tradition is dead.
Speaking on a Wall Street Journal podcast, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said: “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 the instance of influenza dramatically in this country.” But are we speaking too soon?
When did we start shaking hands in the first place, and how did it become such a widespread cultural practice?
One of the earliest known images of a handshake was found at the archeological site of Nimrud in Iraq.
It depicts the Assyrian King Shalmaneser III and the King Marduk-Zakir-Shumi of Babylonia shaking hands in demonstration of their alliance.
There are references to grabbing hands in greeting and friendship in ancient literature as well.
In Book 14 of the Iliad, Neptune takes Agamemnon’s “right hand in his own” as he assures him that “the blessed gods are not yet so bitterly angry with you.” In the final book of the Odyssey, Odysseus returns home and the servant, Dolius, is described as, “seizing his master’s hand and kissing it at the wrist.” Variants of this gesture appear on Greek funerary art as well.
Consider this grave stele of Philoxenos with his wife, Philoumene, which dates to about 400 BCE.
This particular example is owned by the Getty Museum, which explains that, on gravestones: “The handshake motif, or dexiosis, was a symbolic gesture that could represent a simple farewell, a reunion in the afterlife, or an ongoing connection between the deceased and the living.” In ancient Rome, handshakes appeared on coins as a symbol of an alliance or friendship.
This example is owned by the trustees of the British Museum and dates from 128-132 CE.
Here, Roma draws Hadrian’s right hand towards the extended right hand of a Senator.
But why do we usually shake with our right hand?
There are likely a few reasons.
The most popular explanation has to do with weaponry -- historians have analyzed artwork in caves and determined that for thousands of years most people have likely been right-handed, so taking the right hand takes away a potential weapon.
Then, there might be a religious angle.
Hand shaking is part of both Islamic and Christian traditions.
In Islamic tradition, the right hand is associated with honor and designated for certain clean tasks, such as eating.
The left hand is meant for life’s, well, dirtier functions.
It is considered correct form to shake right hand to right hand.
Although, some Muslims believe it is inappropriate for men and women to shake hands at all.
Quick caveat: We recognize that women have not participated in handshaking customs at many points in history (and in many cultures).
In the interest of brevity, our summary will not delve into this fascinating aspect of the history of the handshake.
Bu, back to what we were saying, in Christianity, extending one’s right hand is also considered a beneficent gesture.
During the feudal era, courtly formalities, including elaborate salutations, curtsies and bows came into vogue in many parts of Europe.
Although feudal mannerisms would evolve over time, the spirit behind them remained constant.
Rituals of deference marked one’s place in the courtly order.
As these courtly customs spread to the colonies, the idea of greeting others with a handshake was far more in line with a newly formed America’s democratic principles.
Americans have been shaking hands with each other at least since the 17th century, when Quakers, who explicitly denounced exhibits of social hierarchy, used this as their form of greeting and taking leave.
That said, clasping hands has not always seemed to be a great idea in the United States.
Consider, for example, the 1793 outbreak of yellow fever in Philadelphia.
In just three months, over 5,000 people were reported dead in that city.
That was about 10% of the population.
Medical experts at the time did not realize that the disease was transmitted by mosquitoes.
At the time Matthew Carey, a local publisher, wrote a lengthy treatise filled with excruciating death scenes.
He also included descriptions of citizens trying to protect themselves: Acquaintances and friends avoided each other in the streets, and only signified their regard by a cold nod.
The old custom of shaking hands, fell into such general disuse, that many were affronted at even the offer of the hand.” This wore off not long after the outbreak.
The good old American handshake had returned.
Handshakes became such a popular form of greeting in the 19th century US that etiquette guides often included instructions on how to do it correctly.
One guide published in 1880 advised against rushing the handshake, saying that “when acting on the spur of the moment, with possibly slight embarrassment, ludicrous errors are liable to be made.” Oh, those ludicrous handshaking errors we’ve all made.
Another etiquette guide advises that when a woman extends her hand in greeting, “A gentleman who rudely presses the hand offered him in salutation, or too violently shakes it, ought never to have an opportunity to repeat his offense.” Then as now it was important to strike the right balance between vigor and excess.
Throughout the 19th century, Americans used handshakes to seal business deals and conclude political negotiations.
One of the most famous American handshakes took place in the Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, as Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee negotiated the surrender of the Civil War.
A far less fortuitous handshake of note took place at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, when Leon Czolgosz shook president William McKinley’s hand with his left hand while firing two shots from a gun hidden in his right.
Americans shook hands until another epidemic hit: The Flu of 1918-1919 (colloquially called “The Spanish Flu”).
The CDC reports that the Flu infected about 500 million people, or one-third of the world’s population.
Side-note: This virus did not originate in Spain.
The country got the blame because the Spanish press reported the disease’s spread, while British, French, German, and American papers censored the story to maintain wartime morale.
During this pandemic, in some places, people were advised not to shake hands, to stay inside, to avoid touching surfaces and their face and to wear masks.
New Yorkers were banned from spitting in the street.
Since the pandemic did not last very long, neither did Americans’ concerns about shaking hands.
As we started to learn how germs spread, the medical community were sounding alarms.
In 1929 nurse, Leila I.
Given, published a study called “The Bacterial Significance of the Handshake” in the American Journal of Nursing in which Given concludes that handshakes spread disease.
In this study, Given wrote “One may well ask why sanitary America persists in a custom which has nothing to justify it from the sanitary standpoint, but national customs are not easily abolished.
That hand-shaking will ever disappear from our midst may be doubted, and our only hope lies in the education of people to a realization of the danger of hand-transmitted infections.” So why is this “handy” custom so difficult to “shake”?
On one level, handshakes are a useful tool to communicate power dynamics.
As an article in Psychology Today points out, people can “signal their status” by incorporating nonverbal “meta-signals” into their gesture.
These signals might include, “clasping their counterpart’s hand with both of theirs; putting a hand on the other person’s arm or shoulder, or holding on to his or her hand for an extra few seconds.” A National Geographic article dives deeper, citing the book, Don’t Look, Don’t Touch, by behavioral scientist, Val Curtis of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
Curtis suggests that the handshake signifies trusting another person enough to share their germs.
The article also refers to a fascinating study done in Israel, in which researchers filmed strangers shaking hands.
And here’s the shocking thing: 25% of the participants sniffed their own hands after shaking someone else’s!
The researchers theorize that many people subconsciously use handshaking to detect chemical signals from others.
I'm pretty sure that I never was a “post-handshake hand-sniffer,” but I definitely felt like I learned about others by the way they gripped my hand.
And, if I am being honest, I am kind of nostalgic for that kind of direct human connection again.
But physicians disagree, and think we should permanently retire this old gesture.
Dr. Poland, Director of the Mayo Clinic's Vaccine Research Group, explains: "The reality of it is, in modern times, you may well be harboring a bio-weapon, so to speak.
I think there are much more safe and culturally appropriate ways to indicate a greeting."
But regardless of where you fall on the to shake or not to shake debate, it’s true that the handshake as a greeting has had incredible staying power.
And if I had to guess, I would say that shaking hands might make a comeback once scientists develop a vaccine for Covid-19, although it’s hard to say for sure.
So until next time, please keep your hands to yourself and stay safe!