July 9, 2020

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Opinion

Shaking all over: keep hands to yourself

It only took a pandemic for people to decide to keep their filthy paws off each other

(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)</p><p>In the post-pandemic world we are now rethinking the handshake.</p>

(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

In the post-pandemic world we are now rethinking the handshake.

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Hands are gross.

They were gross before the pandemic, before we learned, in 2020, how to properly wash them. Think about everything you touch with your hands, and the pickup hockey team of germs you acquire moving through your day in public. Think about the collage of french-fry salt, saliva and worse spread all over unwashed hands.

That, and hands are moist. You literally don’t know where other people’s have been. And yet, for a long time, grabbing someone else’s clammy mitt and potentially giving them your seasonal cold in the process was the socially accepted way to say, "Nice you meet you," or "I accept this job offer," or "I am not carrying a weapon."

In many cultures, handshaking — or "pressing the flesh," as politicos call it, a phrase that inspires dry heaves — is a sign of mutual respect and trust.

Like so many of our typical, pre-pandemic behaviours that now seem absolutely galling through the lens of a global pandemic — see also: blowing out birthday candles, sharing a bag of popcorn in a crowded movie theatre, licking a finger to open a stubborn bag — we are now rethinking the handshake. Social touch is at odds with social distancing, and people are hyper-aware of hand hygiene.

But our hands have always been, as Dr. Mark Sklansky, chief of pediatric cardiology at UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital and longtime handshake-hater told Time, "a phenomenal vector for disease." That’s not new. Before we were encouraged to cover our coughs with our elbows, what did we use? Our hands. Case closed.

I, too, have always hated the handshake, and I used to be an outlier. It seemed rude to refuse a handshake, as though I was implying the person offering it was gross (we’re all gross), so I always just inwardly cringed my way through it. I don’t love hugging strangers, either, especially the ones who loudly declared that they were "huggers." As for cheek-kissing, well, thanks for the sniffles.

Some people are mourning the death of the handshake and what it means for polite society and decorum. "But what do I do when I meet someone?" people are asking.

Luckily for us, there’s a veritable rainbow of expressions we can use to express our respect and openness that won’t potentially give someone diarrhea later.

I suppose we can keep trying to make the elbow bump happen, but there are so many perfectly good, touchless greetings that already exist: the head nod of acknowledgement. The wave hello. The bow, which is just as commonplace as handshakes in many cultures.

We’ve had to change a lot of our behaviours over the past few weeks and, like navigating a grocery store, divesting ourselves of the handshake will not be seamless. If you haven’t realized it by now, figuring out what the new normal looks like can be messy and awkward — especially at a time when many of us are not even hugging our loved ones, let alone shaking hands. People will be left hanging, as it were.

But you know what? Many of us are talking about it, and naming that awkwardness. "I’d shake your hand but I think you’d rather not." "I’m going to keep my distance, but here’s a virtual hug."

See, the handshake itself was never the thing. It’s what we use the handshake to say that’s important: "It’s nice to meet you." "I look forward to working with you." What if we just said what we meant?

Social norms can change. They have before. I mean, when was the last time you saw anyone drop a curtsy?

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @JenZoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti
Columnist

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.

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