The fate of handshaking in a post-COVID world

Where the handshake came from and where it's going in a post-Covid world

May 19, 2020 

An ancient ritual

Just last year, you routinely engaged in an ancient ritual when meeting people but you probably didn’t know you were doing it.

Shaking hands.

Handshaking is a common form of greeting that dates back thousands of years. A popular theory on the handshake’s origin is that it started as a gesture of peace. Grasping hands proved you were not holding a weapon and shaking them helped check that the person you were greeting wasn’t hiding anything up their sleeve (not sure if that’s where the phrase started).

National Geographic reports that images of handshaking appear on ancient artifacts including pottery, gravestones and art. A stone relief work dating back to 9th century B.C. depicts an Assyrian king shaking hands with his Babylonian counterpart.

The future of handshaking

The question now is whether handshaking will survive into the future.

“I don’t think we should ever shake hands ever again,” said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a leader of the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force.

Fauci later clarified he was only somewhat serious, but then added “that is really one of the major ways that you can transmit a respiratory illness.”

While health experts are urging everyone to social distance as well as wear masks to minimize the chances of catching Covid-19, there are also suggestions we should change the way we physically interact with each other. Does that mean the handshake gives away to the fist bump, elbow bump, foot shake, head bow or namaste (praying hands and slight bow)?

“It’s likely hand shaking will always be with us because it is so ingrained in the culture,” said Peter P. Nieckarz, associate professor of Sociology and Head of the Anthropology and Sociology Department at Western Carolina University.

“Handshaking may be more prevalent in areas not hit hard by the virus and less so in areas that suffered more. But overall, there is a new level of expected personal space and as that continues, the replacement of shaking hands with another form of greeting will become more acceptable.”

In the broader picture, research shows humans need intimacy and the handshake is the least invasive form of physical touch that also conveys warmth and intimacy. But the amount of physical touch varies by culture. And Americans are more comfortable with some degrees of privacy and space.

“That may make the replacement of handshaking with something else a little easier,” adds Nieckarz.

It’s also likely young people may be more willing to try different forms of greeting, simply because handshaking isn’t so ingrained in them. Ultimately, Nieckarz believes the fate of the handshake will depend on how widespread the pressure not to shake becomes.

“There will definitely be a degree of change and not shaking hands will become acceptable,” Nieckarz says. “But If the practice of not shaking hands becomes widespread, the social pressure on everyone to not shake hands will grow and a permanent change will take place.”

—Frank Graff

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on Sci NC, a broadcast and online science series.