The handshake: a time-honored greeting or a needless transmitter of illness?
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Global Traveler

Your guide to new, 'touchless' greetings

My first experience with the small, but rapidly growing movement to eliminate handshaking was in a chiropractic office in Singapore two weeks ago.  

"Are you shaking hands? Some people aren't these days," the chiro said, extending his hand before awkwardly retracting it.

I did — to break the oddness of the moment — but I did not, actually, want to. I'd started feeling wary about the gesture since coronavirus cases had begun to slowly tick up in Singapore in mid-February.

A new etiquette emerges

Within a week, the hands-free trend was in full effect. Job candidates declared they weren't shaking hands with interviewers in our office. People discussed the subject at parties and at work, signaling their stances with palms planted firmly in their pockets or behind their backs.

To combat the financial loss that may be incurred when clients cancel, legal experts stress the importance of clearly defined cancellation and rescheduling policies in business owners' contracts.
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When handshakes did take place, the greeting was strangely limp and lifeless — two people engaging in an act that neither really welcomed.

Suddenly no one knew how to casually say hello anymore. Especially if you're someone who travels frequently, meeting new people from new places, it feels important to offer some sort of physical gesture. And what's the etiquette for turning down a handshake anyway?  

Anomaly or new norm?

Contactless greetings are gaining traction everywhere from parliament houses to sporting events and morning talk shows.

France's Health Minister, Olivier Véran, advised against shaking hands as well as cheek-to-cheek kissing, known in France as "faire la bise" (literally "to do the kiss").

The French are being asked to refrain from "faire la bise," the traditional cheek-to-cheek greeting in France.
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In a widely-viewed video, German Chancellor Angela Merkel's outstretched hand was rejected by Horst Seehofer, the country's interior minister; the two laughed as she pivoted to a chummy double-handed wave.

Chances are good that once the threat of coronavirus settles, handshaking will continue as usual. But perhaps it's time to reconsider the tradition — one we know leads to illness and disease transmission.

Handshakes: Then and now

With origins dating back to ancient Greece, handshaking is believed to have originated to prove participants were not holding weapons (the shaking may have been a way to loosen daggers hidden inside clothing.) A funeral stone in Berlin's Pergamom museum from 5th century B.C. shows two soldiers clasping hands.

Even then, handshakes were likely a formalization of a pact between two parties. Homer references handshakes in both "The Odyssey" and "The Iliad," usually as a display of trust.  

Vintage engraving showing the meeting of Edmund Ironside and Canute on the Banks of the Severn, estimated 1016.
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The handshake as a daily greeting is much more recent. Written guidelines from the 1800s explained the art of the handshake, a subject still popular today.

In the 19th century, germ theory replaced smells, demons, astrology and a vengeful God as the dominant theory behind microorganism transmission. German physician Robert Koch discovered that specific germs caused specific diseases, and French microbiologist Louis Pasteur disproved the idea of spontaneous generation — meaning, germs must be passed from one source to another. They don't just appear magically on their own.

The Hungarian physician, Ignaz Semmelweis is credited with discovering the links between hands — and handwashing — and infection rates, after he observed maternal mortality rates were lower for women treated by midwives rather than physicians, the latter of whom often tended to patients after performing autopsies.

Still, handwashing in general wasn't widely practiced until the 1980s. Today, the average person shakes hands 15,000 times in their lifetime.

Handshake alternatives: The ways cultures say hello

In many parts of Europe and the Middle East, people kiss (once, twice or even three times) when they meet and depart. In New Zealand, the native Maoris tap noses and foreheads together. Tibetans stick out their tongues at one another.

"Saffas who know each other well tend to kiss each other on the lips, which everyone else thinks is super weird," said Alex Westcott Campbell, using the colloquial term for South Africans like herself.

The Japanese bow to greet one another and as a sign of respect, as evidenced here by Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi on November 11, 2016.
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The Japanese bow with hands at their sides, while Thais and Cambodians nod with their hands held in a prayer-like pose. In India, people greet one another with "namaste," a pose made popular around the world through the practice of yoga.

Yet, many of those cultures shake hands too.

Is it time for a new global greeting?

Calls to drop the handshake aren't new.

In 2012, Chicago-based physician Alex Lickerman posited the issue in an article published in Psychology Today. Calling handshaking "a modern-day health hazard," he noted that most diseases transferred through handshakes are tolerable but that "if most, or even a few, of the viruses that handshaking spreads were fatal … contact-handshakes would undoubtedly disappear overnight."

Similarly, Dr. Mark Sklansky, chief of pediatric cardiology at UCLA Mattel Children's Hospital, and two other authors recommended waving, bowing or namaste greetings instead of handshaking in hospital settings in a 2014 editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Baseball players have been forearm smashing and fist-bumping for years.
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Florida pathologist James Robb, who has studied coronaviruses since the 1970s, wrote a now-viral letter in February. His No. 1 rule: "NO HANDSHAKING!" Notably, he wrote that "these are the same precautions I currently use during our influenza season."

So it's no surprise that in the wake of the coronavirus, new greetings are emerging, from awkward elbow bumps and contactless high fives to the foot-based "Wuhan shake."

But not everyone agrees.

Some — including Boris Johnson — prefer to employ diligent handwashing instead. Other arguments in favor of handshakes include custom, global acceptance and the importance of human touch and physical connection. Tossing out a time-honored tradition now could be construed as an overreaction in a time when we need collective calm.

Is there a middle ground?

A study in 2014 found that fist bumps transmitted 90% fewer bacteria than a handshake.

"It seems that the handshake is worse than the fist bump for transferring bacteria because the surface area of contact is much larger, handshakes last longer ... and the firmer the handshake, the greater the transfer," said Dr. Dave Whitworth, a microbiologist at Aberystwyth University and one of the researchers behind the study.

Cruisers on small vessels have adopted a version of the bump, known as the "cruise tap" that uses just two knuckles.

President Barack Obama does a fist bump with Ethan Gibbs, the son of then Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, outside the White House on April 19, 2009.
Aude Guerrucci/AFP

Whitworth said he would expect the results that his team obtained using bacteria to be the same with viruses.

Another idea is to reserve handshaking for close contacts only. And perhaps it's time we let politicians off the hook from handshaking free-for-alls.

Shaking hands may be here to stay, but having an acceptable alternative — for those who want it — isn't a bad idea. Perhaps the woman behind Merkel is on to something: both hands crossed across the chest and a polite nod of acknowledgement.

"I've never been a fan of the handshake, although I will shake hands if circumstances demand it," said Whitworth. "My personal preference is for a nod and a smile."