Will the handshake survive the pandemic?

5 May

Hi, I’m Pete. It’s nice to meet you.

Okay, close your eyes. Imagine we’ve just met and I’m saying that to you. In your mind’s eye what am I doing? Chances are I’m offering you my right hand.

It’s an interesting thing, right, the handshake? The story of our most familiar physical greetings ritual – not as intimate as a kiss, nor as subservient as a bow – would’ve made an interesting read at any time.

But during a pandemic, The Handshake – A Gripping History by Ella Al-Shamahi becomes even more relevant. And poignant.

Think back to the start of the pandemic. What’s your earliest memory of it?

Two things stick in my mind: One’s the Great Toilet Roll Shortage. The other is the press conference when the prime minster – flanked by his scientific advisers – laid out his plans to stem the spread of the virus (we were already too late to stop it arriving on our shores).

“I was at a hospital the other night,” began the typically jovial PM, “where there were actually a few coronavirus patients and I shook hands with everybody, you’ll be pleased to know, and I continue to shake hands.”

Then, perhaps seeing the looks of incredulity on the faces of the members of the UK press corps, he set on an equally typical back-peddle. “I think the scientific evidence is… well, I’ll hand over to the experts.”

The camera panned to the shaking head of Patrick Vallance – put in an unenviable situation and seemingly unable to believe the lack of caution shown by the prime minister, while equally unable to chastise him despite (presumably) the lecture he’d given the PM on the severity of the situation earlier.

Anyway, a week later Prince Charles was filmed offering a namaste bow to Ant and Dec at a black tie do. The handshake, it seemed, had been consigned to the dustbin of greetings even before large social gatherings had been cancelled.

According to Ella, humans have a long history of shaking hands in greeting – far longer than many of us realise. We’ve been told the greeting originated during the middle ages, when knights would offer their sword hands to prove they were not armed.

It’s a credible origin story, but even a cursory Google search will bring up pieces of art more than two thousand years old depicting men (kings, soldiers, traders) shaking hands.

A paleoanthropologist and evolutionary biologist (oh, and stand-up comic) Ella suggests the handshake may go back as far as the dawn of man – and earlier. After all, chimpanzees and bonobos – our closest genetic relatives – shake hands.

Why? In her book, the author points to research that suggests we’re more likely to sniff our hands after shaking them with someone. The handshake, she posits, could be a way of transmitting chemical signals in a way that predates verbal language by millions of years.

So, are there compelling reasons to dispense with the handshake post-pandemic? Well, more researched suggests there are around 150 species of bacteria living on the hands of each and every one of us.

Meanwhile, globally – although I’m not sure who’s admitting to this – only nineteen percent of us wash our hands after taking what Ella delicately describes as a ‘number two.’

Access to water, she chides, does not fully make up the shortfall.

So by shaking hands we’re partaking in a ritual that facilitates the transfer of chemical signals, but also up to 150 different varieties of germ. So will we ever go back to shaking hands?

Ella looks to the relatively recent past. Outbreaks of yellow fever and cholera in the 18th and 19th centuries saw the handshake fall out of fashion. And when Spanish flu hit the United States in the early 20th century, some towns banned the practice – but the ritual soon reestablished itself.

Personally, I’m happy to offer an elbow bump when social meetings resume. But before long I’m sure I’ll be shaking hands again. Old (and beloved) habits die hard.

Ella Al-Shamahi appeared at Swindon Festival of Literature on Wednesday, May 5.

Words by Peter Davison. Image Swindon Festival of Literature

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