Normally, college professor Ravi S. Kudesia shakes hands plenty with colleagues, business associates, and others. Of course, these are not normal times.
In the age of coronavirus, handshakes are verboten. Besides, the assistant professor of human resource management at Temple University’s Fox School of Business is cocooned at his Philadelphia residence, teaching and meeting via Zoom, without much opportunity to engage in firm grips.
But what about when the economy reopens, possibly as early as this month, in parts of the country as the curve flattens? Then what?
“I will be a staunch advocate of namaste for as long as this COVID thing is an issue,” he said, mentioning the customary, contact-free Hindu greeting often accompanied by a slight bow of the head and palms pressed together (a gesture known as anjuli mudra). “I’ll be leaning into that, both because it’s beautiful but also because of safety."
For a virus-shaken public, reengaging in old habits may not come easily. Of foremost concern, arguably, is that germ transferring ritual known as the handshake. Our five-digit appendages, after all, touch our faces all the time (as has become abundantly clear when asked not to), get used to blow our noses, suppress sneezes (when the elbow protocol is forgotten), and are used to clean ourselves in the bathroom. Despite the custom’s ancient history and cultural significance in America, the handshake may be seeing its time come and gone, like the hat tip.
Certainly, that would be the case if Anthony Fauci, the demigod of all things coronavirus, has his way. The director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House coronavirus task force suggested recently that Americans should never shake hands again.
“When you gradually come back, you don’t jump into it with both feet,” Fauci said in a Wall Street Journal podcast. You say, what are the things you could still do and still approach normal?’ One of them is absolute compulsive handwashing. The other is you don’t ever shake anybody’s hands.”
Then the doctor added: “I don’t think we should ever shake hands ever again, to be honest with you.”
Could the handshake really come to an abrupt halt for all time?
Kudesia argued that the likelihood is pretty small. He ventured that in three years, any reduction in the practice would be negligible. Consider the Lindy effect, Kudesia said. That’s the idea that the longer something has been around, the longer it is likely to stick around in the future.
The habit’s handhold appears to have ancient origins, showing up on B.C. art and in The Iliad.
“The handshake wasn’t born out of courtesy or goodwill, but fear,” said Pamela Eyring, president of the Protocol School of Washington that offers business etiquette and communications skills around the world.
Roman men, for example, clasped hands to show friendship — and that they had laid down their weapons, the story goes. The 18th-century Quakers get credit for popularizing the practice in America as a more democratic greeting than the status-laden bow or curtsy of Europe. By the 1970s, the usually male ritual among the general population extended to women as they entered the workforce in larger numbers.
Now, the two-pump shake has become a “choreographed dance of information signaling and receiving,” Kudesia said, noting the practice is one of the few appropriate ways of making physical contact in a professional setting. “Handshakes are your first impression.”
Remember the fuss over the seemingly never-ending viselike grippers between Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron at early meet and greets? At 2017 Bastille Day celebrations, the men white-knuckled each other for at least 25 seconds, neither alpha male willing to give.
But despite its entrenched history, if ever there was a time to let go for good, this might well be it.
Rosemary Frasso, director of public health for the College of Population Health at Thomas Jefferson University, said COVID-19 has created a public health opportunity that should not go to waste.
“Fauci is talking about a paradigm shift in our culture in a moment when people are tuned in,” she said. “The whole COVID pandemic is like a global cue to action. It’s really important to leverage it.”
Frasso, also an associate professor of public health, teaches her students about the stages of change model. The first three of six stages are precontemplation, when a person is unaware his behavior is causing a health problem; contemplation, when he starts weighing the pros and cons of that behavior; and preparation, when he decides to take action soon for a healthier life, she explained.
Lots of us are in the contemplation and preparation stages, said Frasso, noting that her own office door has a sign saying the space is a handshake-free zone. “Most of us, if not all, will know someone who gets pretty sick, and maybe with one or two degrees of separation, or not at all, someone who dies,” she added. “That’s going to make this realer in a way than anything else has.”
In her own case, Frasso said she used to shake hands when she met a new person, even putting her other hand on top, offering a warm greeting but also a “double dose of germs.”
Going forward, “I won’t be doing that,” she said.
A clean break won’t be easy, of course. The trick may be a ready alternative to fill the void. Already, Western cultures are looking eastward.
On a few occasions, Prince Charles has been spotted ditching the five-finger grip in favor of namaste, though the future king still caught the virus, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has encouraged his citizens to adopt the Indian greeting.
Meanwhile, Tanzania’s President John Magufuli touched a shoe-clad foot — dubbed the footshake — with the opposition leader last month. Then there is the elbow bump, fast becoming an American favorite, though some have wondered if that really is safer, given the advice to sneeze into the bend. Still, germaphobe Trump tried it out during an early coronavirus press briefing when a health executive extended his crooked arm.
While protocol expert Eyring expects the culturally built-in handshake to make a healthy comeback — eventually — she urges an abundance of caution in the meantime.
“Generally, when I’m with people, I shake hands a lot,” said Eyring, who teaches the proper approach, complete with eye contact. “It’s safe to say we need to be more protective for a while. I do recommend, instead of shaking hands, putting your hand over your heart.
“It’s very common in the Middle East,” she added, “and it looks professional.”