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The ritual handshake loses its grip In the time of coronavirus

If handshakes are indeed injurious to health, can we dispense with the custom once and for all?

, ET Bureau|
Last Updated: Mar 25, 2020, 09.11 AM IST
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Clockwise from left: Prince Charles greets Sir Kenneth Olisa, the Lord-Lieutenant of Greater London, with a namaste; German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer declined a friendly handshake with Chancellor Angela Merkel recently; Diego Simeone and Jurgen Klopp ditched the handshake.
The gloves are off in the war against germs. And the first casualty? The handshake.

Our hands have come a long way —from rubbing stones against each other, to clicking open Zippos, or from wielding a pen, to swiping on a phone. Hands can be used to bless, to deal cards, to pick one’s nose, to kill, or even pleasure oneself or a loved one. The coronavirus-induced hysteria hasn’t stopped people from doing these things in private, but the time-honoured practice of shaking hands has suddenly become taboo.

The English Premier League has done away with sportsmanship and banned handshakes during games. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was left hanging after a Party colleague refused to clasp her outstretched hand. The Dutch government announced a no-handshake rule, only for the Prime Minister Mark Rutte to conclude the televised address with a clammy handshake. His victim, a health ministry official, recoiled as Rutte’s manicured nails bit into his hands like the teeth of a saw.

Meet and greet
The handshake, as we know it, did not always evoke the same sense of revulsion that it does today. In the 14th century, knights of different fiefs would greet each other by extending their unclenched right hands to show that they were unarmed. These medieval warlords were blissfully ignorant that the potential weapon wasn’t a sword, but the hand that held it. Given the propensity of our hands to culture microbes and pass on germs to others, it is a miracle that human beings haven’t already jettisoned tactile rituals.

It would, however, be unfair to conclude that disease-anxiety has not influenced the evolution of social gestures. In 1439, King Henry VI decreed kissing on the cheek illegal to stanch the spread of the bubonic plague in the British Isles. The plague also claimed many lives on the other side of the English Channel, but social conventions in Mainland Europe — which were informed by Catholicism —ensured that a peck on the cheek never went out of fashion.

PTI
(File image: March 9, 2020) Practising social-distancing,​ King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands, center left, greets the Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, center right front, and Coordinating Minister for Economic Affairs Airlangga Hartarto, rear center right, with a namaste.
(File image: March 9, 2020) Practising social-distancing, King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands, center left, greets the Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, center right front, and Coordinating Minister for Economic Affairs Airlangga Hartarto, rear center right, with a namaste.

“In his Epistle to the Romans, St Paul instructed followers to ‘salute one another with a holy kiss’,” writes Andy Scott in his book 'One Kiss or Two: In Search of the Perfect Greeting'. There might be no love lost between Brits and their European cousins, but when EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker met the former British Prime Minister Theresa May to take stock of Brexit talks in early 2019, she pre-empted the customary kiss by stepping back, opting instead for a funereal handshake.

Other cultures have their own forms of greeting. In Japan, people bow when they meet strangers. Argentines blow air kisses, while New Zealanders press their noses briefly as a form of salutation. The namaste, India’s hands-free greeting, also has its adherents.

Cultural differences aside, the handshake has been a staple in business meetings, even predating the advent of globalisation. An engraving from the 9th century BC depicts the Assyrian King Shalmaneser III pressing the flesh with his Babylonian counterpart to seal a trade pact. Homer’s epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey, are littered with references to handshakes.

Bid farewell?
Startup founders have to clasp many a cufflink-wristed hand and die a thousand deaths before winning over the mandarins of sovereign wealth funds. The coronavirus outbreak could, however, mean that entrepreneurs will have to grease their palms with Purell — for the time being.

Politicians are also likely to be greatly inconvenienced by this break from social etiquette. The coronavirus has already infiltrated the security blanket that envelops the political class. Sophie Trudeau, the wife of the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, has tested positive for the coronavirus, as have lawmakers in Australia and the UK.

Handshake diplomacy will have to make way for alternate weapons of statecraft. Javad Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister, gratuitously grabbed the hand of his Austrian counterpart Alexander Schallenberg during the latter’s visit to Tehran last month, while shouting: “I swear to God that I am not infected with the coronavirus.” The joke was met with disdain.

So, if handshakes are indeed injurious to health, can we dispense with the custom once and for all?

On a cold, wet night in Merseyside last week, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp ran into his opposite number, Diego Simeone, prior to the Reds’ clash with Atletico Madrid. The two managers playfully bumped their elbows and retreated to their respective dugouts. They did not shake hands.

Two hours, and five goals later, when the two met again on the touchline, they did not err on the side of caution. Simeone swiftly slipped his hand into the German’s and exchanged a few conciliatory words, before racing off to join in the celebrations. Klopp, meanwhile, shepherded his team back to the tunnel, his big ursine hands slumped over the shoulders of his disconsolate players.

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