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Journey (Blog)

Shake It Off

An infectious disease expert called the handshake a bioweapon. Sure, it needs to go, but it will be a hard habit to shake.


During a business event being held inside a small hotel ballroom, I notice a man who has yet to join one of the clusters of attendees engaged in conversation. Just as he hones in on a group across the room, he suddenly sneezes into his hand. I can see that he has no tissue or handkerchief handy and is trying to decide where to wipe his damp palm. For an instant, it looks like he might wipe it on his suit jacket. He thinks better of this, though. He stealthily moves his hand to the side and flutters it a bit to air dry.
A woman blocks my view and introduces herself. We speak for a moment, we exchange cards and as we survey the room, she spots a colleague and tells me that she has someone she wants me to meet.
She walks me over to the man I'd been observing and introduces us.
I don't know what to do. I know what is about to transpire. He extends his hand, that hand, to shake mine. Shall I tell him that I just saw him sneeze into that hand? No. That would be ill-mannered. So I shake his hand. It's probably a flimsy handshake on my part, not the firm-yet-not-too-strong, confident etiquette-approved handshake. All I can think about are the microbes that have been transferred to my right hand. While this incident is not quite as bad as the time a man sneezed on me, sending spittle all over my eyeglasses and my face as I sat on a seat inside a subway car, it is bad enough to make everything I've learned about proper networking practices fade from my brain.
I try to listen to the conversation, nod, smile, feign interest, but all I can think about are germs. Finally, I can't take it any more. I excuse myself and swiftly head for the nearest bathroom, avoiding eye contact with anyone who might stop me to chat. All I want is a sink, soap and faucet with hot water. I scrub my hands. More than 20 seconds, I'm sure. Then I grab a paper towel to open the bathroom door and try to figure out how I can avoid further contact. This happened about ten years ago and because of the coronavirus pandemic, my aversion to the act of handshaking has been validated.
I have never been comfortable with this centuries-old custom. I was never taught how to execute the proper handshake. I don't remember actually shaking anyone's hand until I embarked on the job hunt after college. For a time I thought it was strictly in the male domain, which would have been just fine with me. The business handshake was as appealing to me as a woman's freedom to openly smoke in public. Freedom to do what you please, just like a man, yes, but was Virginia Slims really a victory? One action gives you cancer (smoking), the other, viruses and diseases like Covid-19. The coronavirus pandemic is giving people cause to rethink many habitual practices, including the handshake.
Recently, Sunny Hostin, co-host on The View, pronounced "I personally am not shaking hands anymore. That's over for me," she said resolutely. "No need to shake hands," and I agree. The custom is ingrained in our society as a greeting, a final gesture to seal the deal, in celebration, and as a representation of honesty and trustworthiness. Still, it needs to go, but it's going to be a hard habit to shake.
Although the handshake has become an indelible part of social graces, its beginnings seem rooted in distrust and apprehension. During ancient times, holding arms out with the palms exposed was to show that no weapons were being held. The forearm shake, which on the surface appears warm and even affectionate, came about in Roman times, when men had the practice of carrying concealed daggers. The grasp of the forearm was to insure that the individual had nothing up his sleeve.
The modern handshake is often credited to 17th century Quakers who considered the clasping of hands a more egalitarian greeting than bowing, tipping a hat or curtsying. Not everyone found this to be a respectable approach, however. France in the late 1800s considered le shake-hands a vulgar English invention. Before the mid-19th century the handshake could be considered an improper gesture, one only to be used between friends.
By the 1900s the handshake was commonplace as a formal greeting, finding its way into the etiquette books, with strict guidelines for proper handshaking technique. The handshake in the 19th century was used to seal business transactions, mostly between men. The practice later became widespread between both men and women in business settings.
It also became a way to prejudge an individual based on whether one has a firm grip on the situation: either you are the one in control, the subordinate, or are equals.
There are numerous handshaking styles that provide as many results, ones that make good, or bad, impressions, as well as those that help you get the upper hand. In one how-to article, in which the recipient of the handshake is called an "opponent," you learn that extending the palm face down shows dominance and the upward facing palm is more submissive. Don't allow the other's person's thumb to be on top, because it will look like you are assuming the other person is in control. If a "power player" presents their hand to you with the palm down, instructs another article, you should respond with your palm in the up position then place your left hand over his and straighten the shake. This double-handed handshake is also called the "politician's handshake." It gives the impression of being trustworthy and honest, but be careful who you use this with, or the receiver might feel suspicious about your intentions.
Whew. That's a lot to grasp.
A handshake to avoid is the vice grip, an overly eager grip that can shrink your hand two sizes. This, and an even more excruciating form, which a Westside Toastmasters article referred to as the "knuckle cruncher," is done by one who has an "overly aggressive attitude to compensate for ineffectiveness in other areas of their life." Does anyone come to mind?
What happens during international business travel? Though the handshake has become as widespread and commonplace as the English language, it is not customary everywhere. While the firm handshake is de rigueur in the United States, in Japan and China, a weak handshake is preferred.
The handshake may be a residual aspect of our evolution from primitive to modern human beings. A 2015 study demonstrated that the handshake might be much more instinctual, and a biological impulse, akin to olfactory sampling found in other mammals. It was found that these "chemo signals" between humans occur through the shaking of hands. The participants in the study were filmed, and it was revealed that after shaking hands they brought their hands near their nose. It was noted that "Subjects greeted with a handshake significantly increased touching their faces with their right hand." This action is similar to dogs sniffing each other in greeting and communicating through chemical signals in their body odor. Of course, this is problematic during a time when health officials have been instructing humans to stop touching their faces.
The gradual relinquishment of the handshake had already been in progress, especially during cold and flu season. At the National Publicity Summit where authors and entrepreneurs present topics and expert sources to journalists, handlers covertly inform the presenters whether or not a journalist being pitched is agreeable to a handshake.
Avoiding handshaking is an important practice, suggested by health professionals for quite a while now, to help reduce the possibility of pandemics. 
"As a society, just forget about shaking hands, we don't need to shake hands," Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of National Institute on Allergy and Infectious Diseases told CNN. "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."
"When you extend your hand, you're extending a bioweapon," said Gregory Poland, infectious disease expert at the Mayo Clinic, during an interview with the BBC, adding that it is an "outmoded custom and it has no place in culture that believes in germ theory."
Yet bouts with the Spanish flu, SARS and Ebola, haven't shaken off the handshake.
Donald Trump, a professed germaphobe, told Stone Phillips in a 1999 interview "I'm not a big fan of the handshake. I think it's barbaric. I mean they have medical reports all the time. Shaking hands you catch colds, you catch the flu, you catch this. You catch all sorts of things. Who knows what you don't catch?"
You catch the novel coronavirus.
Still, President Trump, who has become known for his cringe-worthy handshakes that have been linked to a struggle for dominance, and Vice President Pence, even after precautions such avoiding handshakes were advised, continued to shake hands.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also insisted that he would continue to shake hands, even shaking hands with those he encountered during a visit to a hospital where Covid-19 patients were being treated. A month later he was in the ICU with Covid-19.
Clearly we also need a vaccination for stupidity.
Lately a variety of alternatives to the handshake have been suggested: the elbow bump, fist bump, Namaste bow, and Vulcan greeting among them. Some are a joke of course, while others may be problematic for being too familiar, too casual, or too spiritual. I prefer clasping your own hands in front of you, as a greeting, departure or to express agreement.
I can understand a desire to hold onto the more cordial expression of the handshake. I love watching "soul handshakes" between the brothers, although I've never been able to do one, and I picture an old photo that captures the moment when my father and his older brother, who lived several miles apart, greeting one another with a handshake that symbolized strength, respect and brotherly love. But in the business world, what is more rude—refusing to shake hands or shaking hands and then immediately spraying on hand sanitizer?
Can we agree that the handshake become a thing of the past? And, let's not shake on it.

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