Could the handshake go way of the powdered wig and chewed tobacco?

David Dixon

It’s been around for thousands of years; but is suddenly frowned upon as a filthy and archaic habit exposing us all to coronavirus and God-knows what other diseases…

Could the handshake (dexiosis — from the Ancient Greek: “to give the right hand”) go the way of the cap-doff, the forelock tug, and the Elizabethan bow?

As well as storing PLENTY(!) of toilet paper; one of the advised hygiene protocols advised to stop the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) is to not shake hands when we meet friends and acquaintances.

Despite a folk history that it developed in medieval times to indicate that one was not armed, the handshake is a globally-recognised greeting or parting custom in which two people grasp one of each other’s like hands usually accompanied by a brief up-and-down movement of the forearm. In most societies, using the right hand is generally considered the correct form though assorted cultures have varying customs about how or when to shake and to whom.

Archaeological discoveries of statues and ancient texts show that handshaking was practised in ancient Greece as far back as the 5th century BC. Muslim scholars, however, claim that the custom was introduced by the people of Yemen.

It has also been claimed that it is a way of determining the health of those one shakes hands with by the transfer of social chemicals, as is common when animals of the same species sniff each other.

The hand-shake is therefore not merely a meaningless formality form the echoing past; it conveys a whole range of signals in the complex world of human interaction.

While it was considered impertinent for men to shake an unfamiliar woman’s hand in the past, woman now gladly shake men’s hands, especially in the work environment, as a sign of their equality.

In Christian churches, shaking hands is often part of the service to indicate that the communicants are all members of a society and to also show collegiate brotherhood.

So, what happens if the handshake; as a means for showing honest intentions and good grace to your fellow humans; goes the way of the spittoon and the snuff-box?

Well perhaps the bizarre salutation of the “Footshake” that has appeared on YouTube with Chinese citizens touching the inside sole of each other’s feet with their shoes has some legs.

Other suggestions are the fist-bump that sports stars give each other to indicate common purpose and can-do bonhomie; or the awkward “elbow bump” proposed in America; the casual nod without any physical contact at all; but perhaps not the leering wink of the office lecher. Or the Japanese bow, calibrated to reflect the relative status of each bower; scraping the floor for high-status bosses and honoured elders; barely a nod for riff-raff family members who owe money.

Perhaps the hand-shake is on the way-out anyway. Young men often go for the mock-affection of the shoulder bump; the bear-hug (“whoaaa, coronavirus carrier!”); fist bumps; and hand-plays to show solidarity.

The faux-sophisticated European air-kiss has been a comic staple for decades but could also be on the way-out along with lip-touching, cheek kissing, and the back-slap.

Perhaps we should look to the rituals of the past that served our ancestors so well in less-hygienic times?

Maybe we could reintroduce the forelock tug, used to show deference to the Lord of the Manor in Thomas Hardy and George Elliott novels of the 19th century which had the benefit of his Lord or Ladyship not being required to touch his obsequious social inferior.

Ditto for the doffed cloth clap of the yeomanry and other low-status workers featured in filmic representations of Charles Dickens novels.

Here’s another idea… with our increasingly-regulated and regimented lives, we could go for the military salute favoured in soldierly circles.

Or the Elizabethan bow in which gentlemen placed one foot forward and lowered their head; mostly viewed by modern students when dragged-along for a Year 10 English excursion to a Bell Shakespeare production.

Or the curtsy, still sometimes offered by loyal female subjects to the British Royal family and by female players during the Wimbledon Tennis Championships in London if the Queen or the Prince of Wales is attending.

Or why not go the whole hog and reintroduce the once-popular prostrate-on-the-ground look in religions from Sikhism to Baha’i to Christianity, Islam, Hindu, Judaism, and Buddhism; though advocates would certainly run-up some laundry bills.

For a more stylish and less extreme look, why not the Indian subcontinental “namaste,” where people place their hands together with fingers pointed upwards as if in prayer and bow their heads; or the Arab Bedouin circular flourish of the hands as one intones the traditional Arabic greeting: “Ahlan wa Sahlan”.

Salutations and other human social rituals between strangers are governed by complex and subtle rules based on anthropological and sociological conventions of which few of us are always comfortable. And now the panic over the coronavirus is going to make these rules and conventions just that bit harder.

Maybe, like the two-tone jump suits that every character invariably wears in sci-fi series set in the distant future, we will eventually all have a uniform greeting that will suffice for all and every occasion. Veering from its strict form, however, will taint one as an outsider who is immediately dragged-off to the interrogation cells as an alien invader.

Just as long as we don’t go for the 1990s middle-class “I love you like a brother, man” embrace. Otherwise I’ll start a line in designer caps with the red message, “Don’t touch me, I’m infected!”

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