With the COVID rules lifted, will handshakes lose their grip?
On Sunday, Andrea Rama, a 36-year-old Cambridge postman and mother of two, shook hands with her pastor.
It was the first time since COVID-19 began restricting social contact to prevent disease transmission that Rama remembers shaking hands with anyone. The emotion she felt took her by surprise.
Handshakes are especially meaningful now, she says, as we uncertainly move closer to more normal routines, mingling with others after two years apart.
“Handshakes have never been so loving as they are now,” Rama said. “People are not only polite; they may step out of their comfort zone, or they may say “you’re more important to me right now than all the assumptions we’ve been told over the past two years.”
A long and sprouting tradition, handshakes were one of the first things to do in March 2020, when health officials began asking residents to stay home, wear masks in public and watch for symptoms of a terrifying new virus sweeping the world.
At a press conference on March 12, 2020, Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s medical officer of health, urged residents to “avoid” shaking hands.
“Even though it is part of our business and social culture, I ask that you practice this behavior to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” she said then.
The Mayo Clinic’s Gregory Poland went further, likening the handshake to a bioweapon. Immunologist Dr Anthony Fauci says we should never shake hands again.
The final advice from Toronto Public Health is that you can start shaking hands again, with caution.
“While we no longer recommend avoiding handshakes, each person will need to determine their own level of comfort in various situations,” Associate Medical Officer of Health Dr. Irene Armstrong said in response to questions from The Star.
“Regardless of each individual’s personal decision, we continue to encourage all residents to practice good hand hygiene because hands carry and spread germs. Touching your eyes, nose, or mouth without washing your hands first can let germs into your body.
Geoffrey Leonardelli, a professor at the Rotman School of Management and the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto, says the practice is already being picked up in the business world, where shaking hands signals trust and cooperation.
“I would say handshakes are emblematic of the start of a relationship,” Leonardelli said.
“It’s a powerful standard that lives on.”
Shaking hands can actually be biologically programmed into our DNA, according to paleontologist Ella Al-Shamahi, writing in “The Handshake: A Gripping History”.
She points out that our closest relatives, chimpanzees, use a form of a handshake – more like a finger grip – meant primarily to indicate “let’s make up.”
She argues that we should view the handshake as a unit of touch, like a hug or a kiss, and as important to the human psyche as these more intimate gestures.
“The handshake is one of the golden standards of human connection,” she writes.
“From the Black Death to the Spanish Flu, the handshake has been banned, abandoned and quarantined many times – and each time it has returned. So I don’t think the handshake is dead in March 2020.”
Leonardelli thinks there are downsides to the various substitutes that have been half-heartedly suggested and used in Western culture during the pandemic, including the Japanese bow.
There are categories and subcategories to the Japanese bow, which hold different meanings. Leonardelli, who studies trust and cooperation, suggests that a handshake might be more of an equalizer.
He thinks that while organizations like hospitals could adapt the handshake, he, like Al-Shamahi, thinks the practice will make a more mainstream comeback.
“There might be a few more steps we add to the process,” he said. “We may want to sanitize our hands afterwards.”
Registered psychotherapist Aaron Smith, an assistant professor of social work at Redeemer University in Ancaster, Ont., surveyed 67 teachers in 2021 and found that 89% felt their greeting rituals – including handshakes, hugs and the high-fives – would or could change after COVID.
Given what’s likely to be a lack of consensus on what to do, Smith predicts plenty of tough times before things settle into a new pattern.
“I think it’s going to be messy,” he said, adding that while he expects things to be very different in the short term, things will get closer to normal in the longer term.
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