It’s gonna be hugs, high-fives, or nothing
It’s amazing how many times this topic has come up in conversation recently, in the context of what happens when things get back to normal? Maybe because people really want to be thinking about days, these days, when things do get back to normal.
And after Dr. Anthony Fauci commented in an interview with the Wall Street Journal recently:
“I don’t think we should ever shake hands ever again.”
Now we’ve gotta say, most people we’ve interacted with (remotely!) come down on the side of that being a bit far-fetched. They believe when there’s a vaccine, of course we’ll go back to being a society where people shake hands.
We don’t think so.
Because what’s a handshake anyway? Does anybody really, really like shaking hands? Does anybody really feel their life will have less meaning if they don’t shake hands? WTF does handshaking even mean in this day and age? It is symbolic of an agreement? Of what? To be human? A gentle—or not so gentle—affirmation of a human bond?
It’s not a symbol of momentary ecstatic celebration like a high-five, which we do think will come roaring back because people can’t help but do it. It’s also not an expression of love or deep respect or affinity that’s usually part of a properly-given hug, which often washes over us as an irrepressible urge. But handshaking, at least for most people, we don’t think is reflexive. It involves, in almost every instance, some thought and intent.
So where does it come from in the first place? We found this description from the History Channel:
“The handshake has existed in some form or another for thousands of years, but its origins are somewhat murky. One popular theory is that the gesture began as a way of conveying peaceful intentions. By extending their empty right hands, strangers could show that they were not holding weapons and bore no ill will toward one another. Some even suggest that the up-and-down motion of the handshake was supposed to dislodge any knives or daggers that might be hidden up a sleeve. Yet another explanation is that the handshake was a symbol of good faith when making an oath or promise. When they clasped hands, people showed that their word was a sacred bond.”
Interesting, but really has almost nothing to do with why we shake hands as a greeting today or rather, until recently. We feel pretty safe asserting most handshakes that happened this January, let’s say, had little to do with either weapons or sacred bonds, and more to do with “hiya” or “bye, now”.
We do think there is a modern reason for handshakes and it’s not a bad one: it’s an egalitarian gesture. In societies that use a bow instead of a handshake, there’s often if not always a strong component of status in that bow. So it’s not just a way of saying “good to meet you”, “hello”, or “goodbye”. It’s a way of asserting your dominance, or accepting your subservience in many cases. If a boss hires you in a society where you bow, the bow you’d give in response would be expected to represent both the appropriate expression of gratitude and reverence deserved by a higher status individual, and an acceptance of your lowlier role in the corporate hierarchy.
Handshake is pretty much the opposite: “we’re the same”, “we’re in this together”, “trust me, because here I am giving you my hand to show you I don’t think I’m any better (or worse) than you.” That’s also why it’s been considered insulting if you refuse to shake somebody’s hand. If a boss in the U.S. hires you and shakes your hand, it’s usually more like “welcome to the team!”
There are no doubt times where handshakes too are a sign of status, even a bestowal of status: for instance, if the President shakes hands with you, or your favorite singer, or a personal hero. Or even a crush, as demonstrated (sort of) in this clip from the Simpsons (BTW we don’t recommend a shoulder punch as a viable alternative greeting!):
But those kinds of contacts are exceptions. Especially now that everybody’s walking around with smartphones and has gotten really good at quickly taking selfies with celebrities should the occasion arise; that’s a better memento anyway.
Let’s say the symbol of egalitarianism that’s maybe symbolized by the handshake is worth trying to keep. Could it be conveyed by another gesture that doesn’t involve contact and the potential germ spreading that can come with that?
If so, what is it?
- Elbow bump?
- Hawaiian shaka sign 🤙 ? (Having lived briefly in Hawaii, we really like this one!)
- Military style salute?
- Peace sign?
- Non-status-centric bow?
- Words that verbally convey handshake meaning beyond “hi” and “bye”?
- Non-pervy wink?
- Careful pantomime air kiss?
- Hand on the heart, which is already common in the Mideast?
- Namaste gesture most familiar to many of us from yoga or emojis 🙏 ?
- Thai “wai” gesture, which does have a “status” element to it, but is generally looser than a formal bow.
- “Small hearts”? As seen here:
When we asked our friends for additional suggestions, we found a surprisingly large number coming from classic TV:
- “Nanu-Nanu”? (Which was an homage to Spock’s Vulcan Salute, which has already been adopted by some, but is not easy for everyone to do):
- “There he is!”? From the Sopranos (Which was sometimes but not usually followed by a hug, and also would have to be adjusted for more gender fluid times):
- “The Fonz” from Happy Days? “Ayyyy!”:
- Or this? (Another of our personal favorites):
Whatever we end up doing, we’re pretty sure we certainly won’t be doing what dogs do!