Handshake no more

Long before the coronavirus pandemic I had grown uncomfortable with the traditional handshake greeting. My discomfort only being aggravated by the fact that it was so difficult to avoid. And to forsake. The urge to shake hands on meeting friends and acquaintances or being introduced to new people is almost primal. It is close to being a compulsion. It is also a very effective way of spreading disease. The demise of the handshake could be the silver lining of the Covid cloud. I’ll be glad to see it go. And I’ll miss it. I’ll simultaneously celebrate its end and struggle to do without it. I think what I’m trying to convey here is my ambivalence about the handshake.

Generally speaking and most of the time our hands are filthy. You never know where even your own hands have been. Many of the things we do with our hands are unconscious gestures. We are barely aware of We scratch our scalp, nose and ears. We rub our eyes. We cover our mouths as we cough, sneeze and yawn. We chew our fingernails. We chew our knuckles and suck our thumbs. Much of this is quite unwitting. People tend to be surprised when told that they touch their face and head twenty or thirty times every hour. The pandemic has made us more aware because every touch of the face is likely to transfer pathogens to the hands. And every handshake is an opportunity for those pathogens to be transmitted to a new host.

The wonder is that the handshake has survived at all, never mind that it has become so ubiquitous across cultures. People everywhere shake hands with only trivial differences in technique. And where they don’t shake hands they invariably substitute some other form of physical contact. It seems to be a deeply embedded aspect of human behaviour. So deeply embedded that being maladaptive in evolutionary terms has counted for little or nothing. Natural selection should have ‘selected out’ this behaviour as handshakers have a greater incidence of disease and death. Or to put it another way, less chance of breeding successfully. The handshake has survived evolutionary pressure. Not many things do.

There are at least three ways of explaining the survival of the handshake despite its tendency to result in disease and death. The first and arguably most obvious is that natural selection simply hasn’t had time to eradicate the behaviour. Nobody knows how or when the handshake originated. It may be a fairly new behaviour in evolutionary terms. Although all human behaviour is inevitably evolved from the behaviours of the earliest humans, something recognisable as the modern handshake may have arisen only within the last few thousand years. No time for natural selection to have any discernible affect.

Alternatively, the handshake may have survived despite being maladaptive because everybody has always done it. For natural selection to disfavour a behaviour there has to be something that can be relatively favoured. To put it crudely, handshaking could only be eliminated if there significant numbers of people who never shake hands. In reality it is much more complex, of course. But you get the idea. If everybody is doing it despite the risk then the species just has to live with the behaviour – the alternative being extinction.

Both these things may be at least part of the explanation. My own feeling, however, is that it is the third thing which is most significant. The handshake – or its equivalent – has survived because it performs a social function sufficiently valuable to outweigh evolutionary pressure and personal aversion and official proscription. We shake hands because we need to, even if it kills us.

The handshake is commonly said to have originated as a signal of peaceful intent. The right hand is offered to show that it holds no weapon. Another account has it that the clasping of hands is a signifier of formal agreement. It indicates a sealed deal. Persuasive as such accounts may be I don’t find them satisfying. I can’t help but wonder what preceded the handshake as a specific signifier or signal. These explanations of the origin of the handshake seem to tell us no more than that the handshake as we know it developed from a shaking of hands. Which is to tell us nothing that aids our understanding. They do not account for that primal urge I mentioned.

I’m surely not alone in feeling that near-irresistible urge to grab the hand of people I meet. I’m possibly not the only one who feels a degree of discomfort when a social encounter proceeds absent that initial handshake. A vague sense that things are not correct. Not proper. Not complete. We humans seem too need the initiating contact of a handshake or its equivalent in order to be comfortable with an episode of social intercourse. The key term here being ‘contact’.

Here’s a bold statement for you to chew on. All human gestural behaviour and non-verbal communication is evolved from the grooming behaviour of our ape ancestors. This grooming behaviour is known to have social as well as practical utility. As well as getting rid of dirt and infestations it allows social bonding to occur and be maintained. The physical contact is, in its way, every bit as important as removal of parasites. This social function may well have been incidental to the nit-picking, but it has grown in importance even as the need to pick nits has receded. Probably as a consequence of small nomadic groups being supplanted by larger settled communities. The same development as drove the evolution of spoken language. If you live in a group so large that communication by touch is impractical then an alternative means of communicating remotely becomes essential.

Amazing as the phenomenon of verbal communication is, it has not – cannot? – completely eradicated that deeply embedded need for physical contact. We shake hands because we have to touch each other in order to establish a link. What else would we touch with other than our hands? That would surely be the ‘natural’ thing to do.

That need for actual physical contact to initiate social interaction may be part of human nature, but there is no reason to suppose it won’t vary from one individual to another. Some will not be aware of any desire to shake hands. Others will find the urge overwhelming and the failure to satisfy the urge extremely stressful. I tend towards the latter. It’s just the way I am. It is no great exaggeration to say that I would rather not meet with people at all than suffer the stress induced when considerations of hygiene mean the encounter must proceed without first establishing a link by way of the physical contact of the handshake.

We should not discount the possibility that I’m just weird, of course. But I’ve a feeling I may not be the only one afflicted by this particular weirdness.



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12 thoughts on “Handshake no more

    1. Follow up: Think rank and priviledge … then think of the times you may have seen those who deem themselves to have such positons – walking with their hands deliberately behind their back.

      Interesting!

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      1. That may be to do with posture. But if you ever go to a really good restaurant you might observe that when servers are idle – not often – they are trained to stand with their hands behind their backs. This is to stop them touching their face and hair. More importantly, it is to let diners see them pointedly not touching their face and hair.

        I have been mildly obsessive about hygiene for a long time. And just plain obsessive about hygiene in the hospitality industry. The upside of the pandemic may be increased awareness of the need for rigorous enforcement of stringent regulations. People don’t realise how much of their illness and ‘unwellness’ stems from infections transmitted during the consumption of food. We hear about the really serious incidences of food poisoning. But that’s the tip of a huge iceberg.

        We are going to be obliged to change a lot of things about the way we live and interact. As ever, it will take some longer to learn than others. It would be gratifying if the slow-learners died first. But it doesn’t work like that.

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  1. The touchy-feely southern Europeans here have evolved past the handshake and now the “knuckle-bump” is all the rage – at least with men. This has the great advantage is that if you really don’t like the other person the gesture is easily turned into an uppercut which they don’t suspect until it’s too late.

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  2. I find they’ve usually given up by the time I’ve figured out which hand its supposed to be. Thank fek I dont live in France – black eyes all round. I think we’d be best all carrying 2m cattle prods to ward off the huggers.

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