I’m almost certain that if you had read the above headline in “usual times” prior to February 2020 you might think that whoever wrote it is either a recluse, a germaphobe or an astronaut who had been encamped on another planet for a while. Writing about something as humdrum as a handshake? Really? It might also seem like a “so what?” post from Twitter’s early days along the lines of “I had toast for breakfast today!”
Obviously, though, the last 13 months have been anything but usual and one of the pandemic protocols established early in the crisis was that we should faithfully avoid contact with others not in our immediate “bubble.” And that has included shaking hands.
So last week, when, for the first time since February 2020 I firmly shook someone’s hand who had offered it to me, it represented for me the possible end of a year-long dark chapter and the start of a new chapter, one that seems more familiar. More normal.
Could this be a harbinger of a return to those “usual times?” Times when shaking hands and other forms of ordinary human contact was the rule and not the exception? When touching and propinquity in general were not cringeworthy activities?
Let’s be clear — the pandemic is still with us and both of us who touched palms that day have been fully vaccinated. And it was my brother-in-law at a mostly outdoor family function, not some random passerby in a strip mall parking lot. So, when he offered his hand, I executed my part of the ceremony. However, being a creature of habit who has been socially conditioned to avoid certain forms of human contact the last 13 months, it still felt momentarily odd, unnatural.
Full disclosure — I’m a handshaker and a pretty good one at that. Firm, but not bone-crushing, while making good eye contact. It’s what people do in both the business world and the social world. Additional full disclosure — I also hug, but on a more selective basis — with family, close friends, and some colleagues. Even with a few clients.
And that makes me wonder if 4–6 months from now, especially in the world of business, will we once again be hand shakers even if the shake is followed by a quick squirt of hand san?
Why Do We Shake Hands?
Historians tell us that the handshake has been around for a long time and many articles identify a 9th century BC frieze depicting the Assyrian and Babylonian kings concluding some sort of agreement as the earliest documented shake. Historians also suggest that in early Greece and Rome a handshake was supposed to demonstrate to someone else that you were not carrying a weapon in your hand and that you could be trusted.
Fast forward to starting about the 19th century, the handshake has taken on a number of meanings, symbolizing congratulations, a greeting or parting, a completion of agreement, or in the athletic world, a sign of mutual sportsmanship.
It is also a convention of political campaigning to “press the flesh” to attract voters to one’s cause. While President Theodore Roosevelt had reportedly set an early record with 8,510 handshakes at a White House reception in 1907, a Brit named Stephen Potter in 1987 shook 19,550 hands at the St Albans Carnival in England to get a place in the Guinness Book of World Records.
There is also a 2011 Guinness world record for the longest handshake (33 hours, 3 minutes) which had to be dreadfully boring to watch. If there was a live commentator at the event describing the “action” it would surely have qualified as a Monty Python sketch. However, none of the sources I examined explained how the gentlemen attended to their, um, normal bodily functions over the course of 33 hours. Perhaps it’s best we not know.
While the handshake almost universally conveys a demonstration of respect or even equality, there are cultural and religious differences for who should be able to shake who’s hand, how hard or soft the squeeze, duration of the shake, gender rules, etc. Nonetheless, it is an important ritual — especially in business — which can build and maintain relationships.
In this pandemic, the alternatives to the handshake have been elbow bumps, simple nods or even slight head bows. Even the fist-bump has been considered to be bad form because of the touching aspect. But it all seems so distant, so impersonal.
Handshakes — Looking Ahead
My own perspective is that in a soon-to-be post-pandemic world that over time we will once again become a society of hand shakers. It will be gradual — don’t look for a replication of the 1967 “H-Day” in Sweden, a day in which all drivers and all traffic switched to the opposite side of the road. There will not be an official “all clear” email coming from some authority like the National Commission on Handshakes.
There will be a natural hesitancy for a while as the concept of “herd immunity” will remain not fully understood. Hence, rules of engagement will depend on the situation and on the individuals themselves.
And we should be prepared for some awkward moments when we are meeting someone for the first time, or at a business meeting with both parties potentially thinking, “Should I or shouldn’t I? “ with neither wanting to look like an idiot for holding out one’s hand in greeting and potentially getting no reciprocity.
And when that fumbling around occurs — and it will occur — we should expect some nervous laughter perhaps by both parties. Maybe there will be a second handshake attempt after a brief acknowledgment of the situation. In some cases, it might feel like a comedy sketch. In other cases, it might feel like a genuinely embarrassing encounter.
In the biz world, I’m quite certain that dispensers of hand sanitizer will be de rigueur for offices and common areas for a long time to come. And for in-person meetings involving more than a few people or for corporate training sessions I expect that the customary pre-meeting handshakes will be skipped for the sake of prudence, at least for now. I can recall that occurring a few times in past winter flu seasons when lots of people were sick — we simply avoided the shake and moved on. And somehow we managed.
Who would have thought that relearning how to navigate a cultural practice as prosaic as the handshake would take so much effort as we re-emerge into a new normality and reset the civility clock? One wonders how long it took after the 1918–19 flu pandemic for people to once again make everyday contact with others without feeling skittish — or even threatened — about doing so.
About the author: Mike Hoban is a business topics writer and leadership coach/ advisor. He is actively working at becoming a world-class grandpa to his five young granddaughters. In addition to his 35+ years experience as a leader, consultant and business owner he has also published extensively in Fast Company and wrote a business column for 12 years. Many of his recent commentaries — including several about leading during the COVID crisis — can be found on his LinkedIn page: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mike-hoban-b5756b6/ He can also be reached at email@example.com.
Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.