Over the years it has served us well. It has been dignified, widespread and it served its purpose, silently and dutifully, in a way that no other social greeting possibly could. As well as signifying the beginning and the end of meetings, the handshake has been used to cement political alliances, to seal big business deals, to offer congratulations and to exhibit friendship to the world’s paparazzi (think back to Theresa May and Donald Trump, 2018).
Yet the handshake, it would seem, has been killed by the coronavirus. It died at the beginning of March, before lockdown, when people up and down Britain were beginning to fear the inevitable tsunami of Covid-19 that has, for months, washed over the world. With every surface a potential breeding ground for viral transmission, the handshake had to go.
“When you extend your hand, you’re extending a bioweapon”, Gregory Poland, disease expert at the Mayo Clinic, told the BBC. He went on to label the handshake an “outmoded custom” that “has no place in a culture that believes in germ theory”.
“The handshake has no place in a culture that believes in germ theory.” – Gregory Poland, Mayo Clinic
But the handshake enjoyed good times – many of them – and years of popularity. Unlike most of us, it has made history time and time again. Who can forget US president Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un in June 2018? Following a war of words on social media platform Twitter, in which the POTUS called North Korea’s Supreme Leader a “little rocket man”, the two and met, and shook hands, to discuss North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
A more dignified example was former US president Barack Obama, who shook hands with Raul Castro, the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba. The handshake here marked an end to hostilities between the two countries, and a new era for Cuba in the modern world.
The handshake enjoyed good times – many of them – and years of popularity. – Constance Watson
In 2012, Queen Elizabeth I shook hands with Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland’s First Minister and former IRA leader. It was a handshake that many thought would never happen, and signified peaceful relations between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
And let us not forget the rather whacky three-way handshake (see – it’s adaptable) exhibited by Winston Churchill, President Truman and Joseph Stalin at the Potsdam Conference of 1945. This time, the ritual marked the end of the Second World War, and the hope of peace to come.
So, you see, the handshake is favoured by all, no matter their colour or their creed. Its origins are disputed: archeological ruins from Ancient Greece (dating back to 5th Century BC) depict soldiers shaking hands. In medieval England, the practice was adopted to prove that the handshakers weren’t armed – a pre-Toy Story “I come in peace”, if you like.
The handshake is survived by the fist bump, the elbow graze, the wave and the bow. It lived well, and was loved until the last.
Constance Watson is Assistant Editor of the Catholic Herald. She also contributes to the Spectator, The Telegraph, Standpoint and The Oldie.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.