The Complicated Future of the Handshake
Vaccines have been administered and restrictions are being lifted. As the Summer of Butter 2021 hits its smooth, tasty stride most of us are ready — hell we might even be yearning — for human touch outside our immediate circles. Parents will be hugged. Random people on the subway shall be lightly brushed against. First dates in over a year are going to, uh... use your imagination. But what should you do when someone you barely know — a new colleague, a business associate — wants to shake hands?
We’re at a critical inflection point when it comes to the handshake. The greeting, which has faced scrutiny practically since the advent of germ theory, has come under withering fire in recent years. In 2014 Vox published an article with the unambiguous headline “Handshakes are a filthy, disease-spreading tradition” The Atlantic ran a piece simply called “Handshakes are Disgusting” which pointed out that up to 80 percent of all infections were transmitted via hands and came to the conclusion, “it would be more sanitary to intertwine almost any other part of our bodies, apart from our lips or genitals.” When the pandemic kicked off in 2020 Dr. Anthony Fauci stated that he hoped Americans never shook hands again.
So we must ask ourselves: is the handshake something we bring back post-pandemic like eating in restaurants and going to the movies? Or should we actively make sure it dies like open office plans or MAGA hats?
So, Uh, About That Explosive Diarrhea
Early on in the pandemic, we didn’t have a good idea of how the virus spread — Instacart orders were doused in sanitizer, Purell was slathered... everywhere. We all but stopped hugging, high-fiving, and shaking hands. Now we know these habits were not a great way to stop COVID-19 but they still turned out to be beneficial.
“Handshaking is not the primary means by which SARS-CoV-2 spreads,” says Dr. Charles Chiu, Infectious Diseases Director at UCSF. “But routinely practicing good hygiene, which includes regular hand washing, helps to prevent many other respiratory and diarrheal infections.”
Yep, two of the most common illnesses in humans, the norovirus (AKA the bug that causes diarrheal infections in humans ) and the rhinovirus (the common cold), are easily transmitted when we touch our hands to our mouths and faces. Washing hands is a great way to prevent these diseases from spreading. Avoiding personal contact altogether may be even better.
“Hand hygiene is really one of the cornerstones of infectious disease control,” adds Dr. Jacqueline Vernarelli, an assistant professor in the department of public health at Sacred Heart University. “So many illnesses, particularly gastrointestinal and other respiratory infections, are very easily spread through limited contact with an infected individual. The COVID-19 vaccine won’t protect you from, say, norovirus, but avoiding handshakes might.”
Anecdotally let me ask you this: how often have you been sick in the last year and a half? Whenever I ask this question most people light up, enthusiastically saying that they haven’t so much as had a sniffle or a cough or an episode of pants-splitting diarrhea. While a great deal of this is probably because of a happy side effect of mask-wearing and social distancing, a lot of it can likely also be attributed to a serious drop off in physical touching.
Maybe Let’s Not Shake On It
Ok so if it’s a good idea to drastically reduce, or cease shaking hands altogether, what should we do instead? Dr. Anthony Fauci stated that he has replaced handshaking with a small bow but for people not of Asian descent this may feel a little uncomfortable. Fist and elbow bumps feel a little lame — like something that was cooked up in the HR department by a horrendous multinational corporation.
“I have been advising people to use contactless greetings,”' says Myka Meier, an etiquette expert and the author of Modern Etiquette Made Easy. “ I think the bow could be interpreted as cultural appropriation, so in order to show respect to all, I have been recommending two greeting methods I created at the beginning of the pandemic called the “stop drop and nod” or the “grasp and greet.” The "stop drop and nod" is a nod-bow hybrid, with your hands behind your back, so as to avoid any inadvertent hand contact. The "grasp and greet" is basically the same thing, but with hands in the front, near your heart, delivered with a big smile and a hello. It is equally awkward, but the message in both is clear: nice to see you, but don’t touch me with your filthy hands.
Despite inventing a pair of hands-free greetings, Meier is not convinced the handshake is gone for good. “At the moment many people are cautious about shaking hands, but we are likely to see that change very soon,” she says. “The handshake has been around since the 5th century BC. It will make a comeback.”
What to Expect When You’re Not Expecting a Handshake
A few weeks ago I was at my first post-vaccination event at Faust Haus, a sprawling winery and estate tucked into a cozy corner of the Napa Valley, when the property’s on-site manager pensively approached me, mask around wrist. “Don’t worry I’ve been vaccinated,” he assured me as he offered his right hand.
I wish I could say I carefully weighed health and safety recommendations from the CDC with what etiquette and decorum called for. But I was two weeks past my second Pfizer shot and thirsty for human contact with someone outside my own family.
I zeroed in on his palm, and a few shakes later I felt a little rush twinged with relief. My first handshake in 14 months! Danny is healing! But soon wave after wave of questions entered my head. After all, for the last year we’ve also received an almost non-stop barrage of messaging from health and government officials warning of the dangers of close contact. Had I taken a chance and done something fairly dangerous and completely stupid?
“In that situation, a small gathering of vaccinated individuals in a private setting, the risk of COVID transmission is low,” Dr. Vernarelli tells me. “Hopefully the manager washed his hands before greeting guests and hopefully you washed yours before eating or drinking.”
I also wondered if my enthusiastic commitment to a handshake might be communicating more than just a disease. “It’s totally possible that the handshake may be a symbol of trust or vaccination status,” says Dr. Vernarelli. “However, I think it’s more likely that people offer to shake hands as a default to previous social norms.”
Go Ahead and Shake Hands, But Make It Count
Before I started writing this article, I was ready to, er, press the flesh with practically everyone I encountered. I discussed it with Esquire head honcho Michael Sebastian who enthusiastically endorsed the handshake's return. But after talking it over with infectious disease experts about just how many gross things are transmitted hand to hand I think it’s time to reconsider — or at least reframe — how we administer the greeting. “I think people crave human touch, says Meier. “We each need to be responsible and each person needs to be aware of their own health moving forward. Etiquette is all about respect and consideration for others.”
Maybe the rule of thumb (rule of hand?) should be this: save handshakes for actual special occasions. The co-worker you haven’t seen in months, the brother who just got a promotion, the attorney who helped you beat that public intoxication charge. Go in and shake their hand. Keep it quick (three quick dry shakes are perfect) and maintain eye contact. And when you’re done, for the love of god, just remember to wash up afterward.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.