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Are Handshakes On The Brink Of Extinction In A Pandemic-Hit World?

With health officials across the world recommending people to socially distance themselves to avoid contracting the highly infectious COVID-19 virus, age-old customs and cultures like greeting with a handshake are fast disappearing.

The History Of The Handshake

No one exactly knowns when the culture of shaking hands first took shape. But it is believed that this form of greeting is thousands of years old. It possibly began as a gesture of peaceful union between two parties. Extending a weaponless, right-hand towards the person you meet was believed to show that there was no ill-will involved. There are even suggestions that shaking the hands up and down was meant to dislodge any knives or similar weapons hidden up a sleeve. Other theories suggest that handshakes were a symbol of making a promise to one another, a way of developing a sacred bond between two individuals with a similar goal. 

A 9th-century relief showing a Babylonian king shaking hands with an Assyrian ruler is one of the first depictions of the handshake culture. Handshakes have also been described in the epics Iliad and Odyssey by Homer. The gesture was also hugely popular in Ancient Rome where it was seen as a symbol of friendship and loyalty. 

In more recent history, handshakes are believed to have been popularised by Quakers, members of a new religious movement that began in England in the mid-17th century. They preferred a handclasp to bowing or tipping a hat as a way of greeting. By the 19th century, handshakes became widespread in the Western world and books were even published detailing the proper etiquette of shaking hands. 

How Bad Are Handshakes?

Today, the COVID-19 coronavirus has forced the Western world to give up this age-old tradition in the matter of a few months. 

As the worldwide death toll crosses 6,000 and countries battle to keep their people alive, giving up the handshake becomes a part of this struggle of Western society to safeguard themselves and their loved ones. 

But just how bad are handshakes?

Handshakes involve skin-to-skin contact between two individuals. As such, it is an easy means for microbes like bacteria and viruses to find their way to a new host. According to a study by the University of Colorado, we carry millions of bacteria from around 150 different species on our hands. Healthcare workers have up to 5 million bacteria on each hand. While bacteria colonize hands more aggressively, viruses including those that cause respiratory infections and diarrhea are also known to persist on our hands long enough to be transmitted from person to person. People who do not maintain proper hygiene and wash their hands regularly have greater loads of microbes on their hands and put others at risk while shaking hands. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can also be transmitted this way. The COVID-19 coronavirus could also possibly be spread this way.

The World Changes Its Ways

YouGov survey was recently conducted to find how Americans respond to waving goodbye to handshakes. Not surprisingly, at least 62% of the polled people said they would rather wave than shake hands. Nodding and bumping elbows to greet were also preferred by 55% and 25% of those polled respectively. 

Similar responses to the outbreak can be seen elsewhere. 

In France, newspapers warn the public against greeting with kisses or handshakes. Australia's health minister advised people to pat each other on the back and avoid handshakes. Brazil's health ministry tells people not to kiss at all. In Iran, videos of people tapping their feet as a show of greeting have surfaced. The traditional “nose to nose” greeting in the UAE has now been discouraged. In France, the tradition of kissing of sculptures of the Virgin Mary could be banned while in Romania, the health ministry has asked people to not kiss during the Martisor festival.

While people around the world are willing to change for the sake of their safety, it will be interesting to see whether the new changes will be ingrained in society letting old traditions disappear or if such changes are only temporary in nature and people will go back to their old habits once the deadly pandemic is over.

RankMethod of greeting% of US adults who are willing to use an alternative to handshaking amid the coronavirus outbreak
1Wave62%
2Nod55%
3Bump Elbows25%
4Bow13%
5None of these10%
6Tap feet/a foot shake7%
7Don’t know7%

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