COVID Couldn’t Kill the Handshake

Mark Sklansky, MD, a pediatric cardiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, hasn’t shaken his hand in several years. The last time he did that, he told me, “Because I knew I was going to go to the bathroom right after.” “I think it’s really bad practice.” From where he’s standing, perhaps a safe distance away, our palms and fingers aren’t healthy. “They’re wet; they’re warm. They’re what we use to touch everything we touch,” he said. “It’s not rocket science: the hand is a very good vehicle for disease transmission.”

It’s a message that Sklansky has been proselytizing for the better part of a decade—through word of mouth among his patients, impassioned calls to work in medical journals, and even DIY music videos warning against beating out there. But for a long time, his calls to action were met with derision and skepticism.

So when the coronavirus began sweeping across the United States three years ago, Sklanski couldn’t help but feel a glimmer of hope. He watched as corporate America snatched up the palm of the deal, as sports teams traded their grip on the endgame for five Jets, and so on. The New Yorker He prematurely welcomed this gesture. My colleague Megan Garber celebrated the death of the handshake, as did Anthony Fauci. Coronavirus has been horrible, but it may also be a wake-up call. Maybe, just maybe, the handshake was dead last. “I was hopeful that would be the case,” Sklansky told me.

But the death knell sounded too early. “The handshake is back,” says Diane Gottesman, etiquette expert and founder of the Texas School of Protocol. This gesture is so ingrained, so lovable, and irreplaceable even if a global crisis is driving it to an early grave. “A handshake is vampirism that isn’t dead,” says Ken Carter, a psychologist at Emory University. “I can tell you it’s alive: I shook hands with a stranger yesterday.”

The basic science of this matter has not changed. Hands are humans’ primary touch instruments, and people (especially men) don’t devote much time to washing them. “If you take a sample from the hands, the boldness is something quite exceptional,” says Ella El Shamahi, anthropologist and author of the book. The Handshake: A Gripping History. And shakes, with their distinctive palm-to-palm compression, are far more likely to spread microbes than alternatives like fist bumps.

Not all of this is necessary badMany of the microscopic occupants on our skin are harmless, or even beneficial. “The vast majority of handshakes are completely safe,” says David Whitworth, a microbiologist at Aberystwyth University in Wales who has studied the cortex of human hands. But not all hand microbes are benign. Norovirus, a diarrheal disease notorious for causing outbreaks on cruise ships, can easily be spread through the skin. So can some respiratory viruses such as RSV.

The irony of the recent handshake pause is that SARS-CoV-2, the microbe that inspired it, is not a tangible danger. “The risk is not very high,” says Jessica Malati Rivera, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. Despite early pandemic fears, this coronavirus is more likely to use breathing as a conduit than contaminated surfaces. This does not mean that the virus could not jump from hand to hand after an ill-timed sneeze or cough, for example, before a shiver. But Emily Landon, MD, an infectious disease physician and hand-hygiene expert at the University of Chicago, believes it would take a large mouthful of mucus or phlegm, followed by some unwashed snacks or nose-picking by the recipient, to pose a real threat. So perhaps it’s no surprise that with the sanitization frenzy subsiding in 2020, handshakes are starting to creep in again.

Honestly, this doesn’t have to be the end of the world. Even considering more transmissible pathogens, manual chains of transmission are much easier to break than airborne. “As long as you have good hygiene habits and you keep your hands away from your face,” Landon told me, “it really doesn’t matter if you shake other people’s hands.” (Similar rules apply to doorknobs, light switches, subway handrails, phones, and other germy hazards.) Then again, that requires actually cleaning your hands, which, as Sklansky will point out, most people would gladly do—even care workers. Sanitary – still pretty terrible.

For now, the tremors don’t appear to have returned to 2019 levels—at least, not the last time the researchers checked, in the summer of 2022. But Gottsman thinks a full resurgence may only be a matter of time. Among her clients in the corporate world, where the currency is control and hold, handshakes abound again. No other gesture, she told me, hits the same tangible spot: just a touch is enough to feel a personal connection, but it avoids the added intimacy of a kiss or a hug. Fist bumps, waves, and elbow touches don’t count. In the worst of the pandemic, when no one was willing to go from palm to palm, “I felt like something was missing,” Carter told me. The lack of a handshake wasn’t just a reminder that COVID is here; She indicated that the conveniences of routine interaction were no.

If handshakes survive the COVID-era — as they almost certainly seem to — this won’t be the only outbreak he will outlast, Al-Shamahi told me. When yellow fever struck Philadelphia in the late 18th century, the shrinking local population began to “return gently even at the width of a hand,” economist Matthew Carey wrote at the time. Fears of cholera in the 1890s prompted a small cadre of Russians to create an anti-handshake society, whose members were fined three rubles for each actual fist. During the influenza pandemic that began in 1918, the city of Prescott, Arizona, went so far as to ban the practice. Every time, the handshake bounces back. Al-Shamahi remembers her eyes rolling a bit in 2020, when she saw outlets predicting an abrupt end to the handshake. “I was like, ‘I can’t believe you’re writing obituaries,'” she told me. “Obviously that’s not what’s going on here.”

The handshake seems to be a talent to carry through the ages. A common origin story for the handshake refers to the ancient Greeks, who may have used the behavior as a way to prove they weren’t concealing a weapon. But Al-Shamahi believes the roots of the handshake go way back. Chimpanzees – from which humans separated about 7 million years ago – seem to engage in similar behavior in the aftermath of fights. Al Shamahi said that handshakes across species probably exchange all kinds of sensory information. They may even leave a chemical residue on our palms that we can unconsciously smell later.

A handshake is not a matter of survival: many communities around the world live just fine without it, opting instead for, say, a namaste or hand over heart. But palm pumping seems to have stopped in many societies for good reason, overtaking other customs such as bows and bows. the handshake is mutual, usually by mutual consent; They are imbued with a sense of equality. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that you see the handshake rising between all the greetings at a time when democracy is on the rise,” Al-Shamahi told me. Indeed, to some extent, shaking hands is embedded in the founding of the United States: Thomas Jefferson persuaded many of his contemporaries to adopt the practice, which he felt was more conducive to democracy than the prosperity of an arrogant British court.

American attitudes toward shaking hands may have undergone permanent change inspired by COVID. Gottesman is optimistic that people will continue to be more considerate of those who are less keen on shaking hands. There are plenty of good reasons to abstain, she notes: having a vulnerable family member at home, or simply wanting to avoid any additional risk of disease. And these days, it doesn’t seem so outlandish to ignore vibration. “I guess it’s not part of our cultural vernacular now,” Landon told me.

Sklansky, once again in the minority, is disappointed by the recent turn of events. “I used to say, ‘Wow, it took a pandemic to end the handshake,’” he told me. “Now I realize, even the pandemic failed to rid us of the handshake.” But he’s not ready to give up. In 2015, he and a team of colleagues cordoned off part of his hospital as A “handshake-free zone”—an initiative, he told me, that has been hugely successful among healthcare workers and patients alike. The rating fizzled out after a year or two, but Sklansky hopes something similar will return soon. In the meantime, he’ll accept By refusing every offered palm that comes his way—though if you go for something else, he’d prefer you not pick fists: “Sometimes,” he told me, “they go just too hard.”

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