The handshake has been through a lot.
Forged in antiquity, the preferred office greeting of the corporate era has survived the peace-sign-as-hello 1960s; the deal-clinching high-five 1990s; and the bro hug of the past decade (a manly-man micro-Heimlich ascending all the way from the playing fields to the Obama White House).
But will it survive the coronavirus? The short-term prospects do not look good.
“We’ve got to break that custom,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease specialist, said of the original glad-hand in April, “because as a matter of fact that is really one of the major ways you can transmit a respiratory-borne illness.”
Obituaries for the venerable business greeting began almost immediately, with Time, Wired and BBC foretelling the hearty handshake’s inevitable doom. An international gesture of goodwill now seemed downright dangerous.
“The handshake traditionally was meant to show respect in business,” said Myka Meier, the founder of Beaumont Etiquette, a manners consultancy based in New York City. “But now, by extending your hand, you may actually be doing the opposite.”
Half a year into the lockdown era, however, it’s fair to ask: Is the handshake truly dead, or is it simply hibernating?
Sweeping predictions made at the height of any crisis often turn out to be unreliable (remember all the “death of irony” talk in the immediate wake of the Sept. 11 attacks?). And sweeping predictions made in the middle of an enduring global crisis with no clear end in sight are the epitome of hypothetical.
It’s worth noting that the handshake has endured at least since the days of “The Iliad,” when, scholars surmise, the gesture may have served as a demonstration of peace among the warlike — proof that they were not carrying, say, a dagger in their outstretched hand.
But the outlook for now is murky, particularly at a point in history where millions are working from home, and empty office districts are seemingly competing as sets for the next Hollywood zombie apocalypse film.
“Let’s face it,” Thomas Farley, the etiquette guru behind the Ask Mister Manners column and a new podcast for pandemic-era social mores called “What Manners Most,” wrote in an email, “if the only individuals you are encountering in the course of your day are the members of your immediate household, your Yorkie and the occasional food-delivery person, chances are, you haven’t had much need to worry about a substitute for that millennia-old greeting.”
Even so, strangers at some point will have to encounter other strangers in a business context and in real life. Greetings will need to be exchanged.
And with that, will we return to the handshake or, having been scarred by the pandemic, something else altogether?
The briefly popular elbow bump, for example, which pops up, usually with maximum self-consciousness, in some business contexts, never feels quite right. It seems both stiffly formal and subtly aggressive at the same time, like a ritualized thrust-and-parry move from a children’s martial arts competition — not to mention epidemiologically suspect if we’re also being advised to cough and sneeze into our elbows.
Early on, the “footshake” — a gentle, mutual tap of the feet, like a soccer steal in slow motion — started popping up in international diplomatic circles. But it was hard to say if this absurd greeting was actually less or more ridiculous than Jimmy Kimmel’s knee-to-knee “Patella Hello” that the late-night host jokingly unveiled in March.
Those options exhausted, the search is on for socially acceptable stand-ins for the handshake that don’t look like silent-film slapstick. But where to find them?
We could look to Capitol Hill, where Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for example, has championed a serene hand-over-heart motion. Studies have shown such a literally heartfelt gesture, familiar in Muslim cultures, can convey honesty, Farley said: “This body language is both warm and humble at the same time.”
Meier has instructed her clients to try alternatives she calls a “grasp-and-greet” (hands clasped at chest level, combined with a polite nod) and the “stop, drop and nod” (hands clutched behind one’s lower back, with a nod).
We could also look to a higher plane of consciousness.
At a recent networking event for entrepreneurs in Carlsbad, California, Elaine Swann, the founder of the Swann School of Protocol, a manners consultancy with offices around the country, noticed many mask-wearing attendees observing social-distancing protocols with a namaste. “The absence of the handshake can feel quite distant when interacting with one another,” Swann said. “The hands-in-front-of-the-heart gesture can convey connection and warmth toward the other individual.”
Or we could look to sports. The fist bump, reputedly popularized by a high-energy NBA swingman of the 1970s named Fred Carter, has already become a common greeting in industries that skew young and cool: tech, entertainment and, yes, sports, Swann said. The gesture may prove a useful half-step back toward the relative intimacy of the handshake, since it offers a hint of touch (and implicitly, trust), without actual finger-to-finger contact that might spread pathogens to the face.
It’s an open question whether these alternatives will serve as a temporary pandemic stopgap, like masks and jumbo bottles of hand sanitizer, or a permanent feature of the corporate landscape.
A lot of that depends on whether professionals returning to the office — presuming they do return — still find modern utility in this centuries-old greeting or carry over the casualness of remote work and come to see the handshake as another 9-to-5 anachronism, like the embossed business card.
By one view, the old-school Don Draper bone-crusher already started to seem a little OK Boomer — even, by some arguments, sexist — in increasingly millennial professional circles.
Etiquette professionals interviewed said they believe the handshake will return at some point, in some form, although perhaps after an extended delay. But if this traditional greeting fails to survive the coronavirus, something important might be lost. Even in the most formal settings, a handshake involves touch, and even fleeting moments of physical contact (when welcome) bestow subtle psychological benefits, said Francis McGlone, a professor of neuroscience at Liverpool John Moores University in England, who has researched the effects of such contact.
“The benefits of a handshake are significant,” McGlone said. “The nerve fibers of the skin that are activated by touch all have a cascade of effects. Touch lowers the heart rate, releases oxytocin” — the so-called love hormone — “which has a knock-on effect with dopamine, the pleasure neurotransmitter. This drives more social behaviors and lowers a stress marker called cortisol, which helps establish bonding and trust.”
Also? Anything is better than a wave through a Zoom screen.