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Are handshakes a thing of the past?

By Aitana Alvarado, October 21 2020—

Handshakes are matters of state. There is no denying that the way we establish rapport with one another is highly political, therefore, the fact our social etiquette is highly political as well should not come as a surprise.

Following Dr. Anthony Fauci’s prediction about handshakes not being used ever again, we should ask ourselves whether the Director of the American National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases could be right? Regulatory practices undertaken as a result of COVID-19, including hand-washing, social distancing, mask-wearing and avoidance of mass gatherings seem to be slowly fading into the background. So, as for handshakes, where does that leave us? We should think about the implications of a no-handshake policy.

Could the elbow bump replace handshakes going forward? Well, maybe. But the question at hand is whether it will be long-lived, or just for the time being? Let’s imagine a scenario where a smile or a wave is the gesture used for greeting or leave-taking. The fact of the matter is a smile can mean multiple things. Where do we draw the line between what is polite and what is friendly? What would be the new standard of etiquette?

These underlying questions are determinants of whether a new standard of etiquette will stick in the long-run. The gray areas of non-verbal cues are where we find the most complexity. For instance, the gesture of shaking hands with somebody ostensibly establishes a rapport based on equality and trust. Hence, omitting this gesture could translate into a change in power dynamics between two individuals. 

Equally, let’s look at the implications of adopting a no-handshake policy in a business setting. Several studies show we can make many deductions about an individual’s personality from a simple ‘business handshake.’ A study published by the American Psychological Association (APA) found vigorous handshakes give a good first impression. In the study, specialists determined the subject’s confidence levels or even their political inclinations based on this gesture. For instance, women who were more liberal, intellectual and open to new experiences were found to have a firmer handshake and made a more favorable impression than women who were less open and had a less firm handshake. The study concluded firm handshakes in women could actually be helpful for self-promotional strategies. Surprisingly, the omission of this gesture in the workplace or even at networking events could have unparalleled implications when fighting workplace inequality. 

I definitely do not see handshakes out of the picture in the near future. That said, I believe handshakes could be restricted to special circumstances, such as graduation ceremonies or job interviews. The truth is greetings are protocols — rituals almost — that break the awkwardness of interacting with someone for the first time. Handshakes are so embedded in our society that they are expected behavior. What is more, the connotation given to handshakes varies across countries and is intrinsic to the cultural setting it belongs to. In Western culture, especially North America, handshakes signify greeting or leave-taking. In other cultures, greetings may look like a hug, a kiss on the cheek — or even two — a bow or touching noses. 

The proximity between one individual and another is expressed through touch or the absence of touch. David Howes and Constance Classen, contributors to the epilogue of The Varieties of Sensory Experience: A Sourcebook in the Anthropology of the Sense, point out that North American societies are considerably less tactile than their counterparts. This finding could significantly explain why non-contact cultures might be more or less likely to adopt the new social etiquette post-COVID-19. If greater interpersonal distance during social interaction is the norm, then this preventative measure may stay for good. 

All in all, I believe that the more human beings are told not to do something, the more they will want to do it. People generally use touch to communicate what can not be said through language. So, restrictive preventive measures like no hugging, might be difficult to abide by during the post-COVID-19 era. Lessons from previous outbreaks — where vaccines were not available at the time — point towards a world where protective measures need to be followed even during the post-COVID-19 era.

According to a TIME magazine article, Dr. Anthony Fauci asserts that continuing with this preventative measure could lead to a decrease in influenza cases as well. On that account, only time will tell what measures will stick and which won’t.

This article is part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet’s editorial board.

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