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A handshake is a tradition that has existed for thousands of years. However, public health experts are now asking us to review the health aspects of that tradition.
The United States was the country hardest hit by the Covid-11 pandemic, with more than 550,000 confirmed cases and 22,000 deaths.
People stay at home to avoid physical contact, and follow advice from community leaders such as Anthony Fauci, Head of the National Institute in the US for Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
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Fauci, a key figure in the US resistance to the corona virus, said this to the Wall Street Journal:
“I think we should not shake hands again.”
If Fauci’s advice is applied en masse, it will mark a major change in human behavior.
After all, shaking hands has been the de facto standard in business, politics and the international community for more than a century.
This habit began thousands of years ago.
But in the midst of a global public health crisis, where hundreds of millions of people avoid physical contact to stop the spread of Covid-11, reviewing deeply ingrained habits, such as a handshake, is not too strange.
“When you reach out, you are holding out biological weapons,” said Gregory Poland, an infectious disease expert at the Mayo Clinic, one of the largest medical research institutes in the US.
He called it “an ancient habit and should not have a place in cultures that believe in germ knowledge,” or the idea that certain diseases are caused by microorganisms that invade the body.
Countries including Japan avoid shaking hands or hugging and choose to bend.
European countries like Italy and France often kiss double or triple cheeks (a tradition that also attracted attention in the corona virus era).
But rituals can change as society changes.
The Black Plague stopped the habit of kissing French cheeks for centuries. Then, can this stop the habit of shaking hands too?
Habits that are hard to break — but possible
Public health officials have difficulty convincing some people to keep their distance, let alone perhaps convincing them to stop shaking hands forever.
Even infectious disease experts agree that the basic need for physical interaction is entirely natural.
“Let’s look at primates,” said Poland.
“Their community involves closeness and touch. They don’t shake hands, but they will touch their arms, caress their feathers, take their feathers. It seems like a kind of ingrained way of saying, ‘I want to show that I want to have some kind of relationship with you.’ “
Tiziana Casciaro, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Toronto, said that shaking hands illustrates the “fundamental drive” that humans have to build trust in each other.
But he understood that Fauzi wanted to keep people safe, and he thought that after the pandemic, many people might be reluctant to shake hands.
Poland agrees. “It takes something big like this to change our cultural habits.”
Schroeder said that there might be what he described as an “uncomfortable period,”: marked by the need for humans to interact through a handshake and the need to heed warnings from governments who say the practice is dangerous.
He points out in his research that, if someone tries to shake one’s hand and someone else refuses (for whatever reason), it makes the first person feel uncomfortable.
This has the potential to stigmatize the act of shaking hands.
In the US, where Fauci has advised to end shaking hands, some people have begun to refuse to shake hands to avoid transmission of the virus.
The leading American etiquette agency also no longer recommends people to shake hands and instead says to that person “it was very nice to meet you, but I follow public health guidelines.”
“I think in the end it is possible to replace the handshake with another ritual that represents a similar sentiment.”
What can replace it?
Experts agree that it is not the handshake itself that is important, but the universal culture message it conveys: such as cooperation and connection.
Besides, there is also a tradition of bowing and colliding, which can be an alternative.
Poland suggested to move the head kindly as a substitute for greetings, and also to make a trend that is currently popular, namely the elbow greetings, although according to him that way makes it awkward.
He also showed that the surface of objects which are often held like door handles are usually dirty.
If people can pay more attention to cleanliness, especially after using the bathroom, maybe it can be a long-term solution and people don’t need to forget a handshake.
Still, the handshake might go extinct — one day — regardless of whether a pandemic has worsened or not.
“[But] if we look at it mathematically, in China, in India, you see half the world’s population whose habits are not handshakes. Make calculations. Other ways to greet are actually more common [than shaking hands],” Kanina Blanchard said, professor and lecturer in management communication at the University of Western Ontario.
As countries like China, the Middle East and India become increasingly influential in the global business world, habits in these cultures can become an international norm, Blanchard said.
Even when humans face rare crises like Covid-11, we still need human connections — something that, depending on your culture, is communicated by bowing, hugging, kissing, or handshaking.