In Brief

Will coronavirus signal the end of the handshake?

Leading immunologists call for end to traditional greeting, but millennia-old custom could be hard to shake

The handshake could become one of many long-term cultural casualties of the coronavirus pandemic, which looks set to forever change how humans physically interact.

Earlier this month, Anthony Fauci, the US’s chief immunologist, told the Wall Street Journal that: “As a society, just forget about shaking hands, we don't need to shake hands. We’ve gotta break that custom, because as a matter of fact that is really one of the major ways you can transmit a respiratory-borne illness”.

“I don’t think we should ever shake hands ever again, to be honest with you” he said.

“If Fauci’s advice were to be taken en masse, it would mark a profound shift in human behaviour,” says the BBC. “After all, shaking hands has been the de facto greeting in international business, politics and society for the better part of a century. Its origins go back millennia.”

Yet “Fauci isn’t alone in his opinion of handshaking,” says CNBC.

Gregory Poland, director of the Mayo Clinic Vaccine Research Group and spokesperson for Infectious Diseases Society of America, told the news network he been trying to put an end to handshakes for nearly three decades.

“It’s an outdated custom,” he says. “Many cultures have learned that you can greet one another without touching each other.”

As the virus took hold around the world in March, The Guardian reported how different countries and cultures were changing their greeting habits.

Bumping elbows is one gesture that is becoming common. In China, loudspeakers told people to make the traditional gong shou gesture, a fist in the opposite palm, to say hello, while in Australia, Brad Hazzard, the New South Wales health minister, advised people to instead give each other a pat on the back. In Iran, it has become common for friends meeting to keep their hands in their pockets and tap their feet against each other as a greeting.

Another alternative suggested by Poland is tilting or bowing your head to greet another person. “When men greeted other people [back in the day], they raised tor tipped their hat,” he says.

There is even a Linkedln page calling for the end of the handshake.

“We’re likely to see a recalibration of the bubble of personal space we keep around ourselves—a field scientists call proxemics,” says Wired. “This varies across cultures already—North Americans and Europeans tend to leave more space around each other than people from Asia, for example”. But anthropologist Sheryl Hamilton of Carleton University in Ottawa told the technology magazine this “might end up breaking along class lines rather than cultural ones in an era of more frequent epidemics, with rich people sequestering themselves away in private cars and spacious high-end restaurants to an even greater extent, while the rest of us travel by cramped public transport”.

Yet, coming automatically to many of us, “refraining from such a common behaviour” as a handshake “is easier said than done”, writes performance academic Erika Hughes in The Conversation.

It has “long been understood as a gesture that establishes a positive connection between two people”, she says, and “at least in the realm of politics, shaking hands is seen as fundamental to how elected officials signal their connection to the average Joe”, CNN reports.

“What the handshake is saying is, ‘I'm really with you and here for you. You can trust me,’” handshake expert Robert Brown told the Chicago Tribune in 2005.

US President Donald Trump suggested as much when he told a Fox News town hall in early March “you can't be a politician and not shake hands.”

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