All over the world, humans find it hard to ignore thousands of years of bio-social conventions and avoid touching another. Shaking hands could be one of the most difficult customs to lose in the post-pandemic world, but there are alternatives, writes James Jeffrey.
The humble handshake ranges from the mundane to the mighty, ranging from a simple greeting between strangers who will never see each other again, to the conclusion of billion dollar deals between business titans.
There are different ideas about the origin of the handshake. It can have its origin in ancient Greece as a symbol of peace between two people by showing that neither of them was carrying a weapon. Or the trembling gesture of the handshake may have started in medieval Europe, when the knights shook the hands of others in an attempt to shake off the hidden weapons.
Quakers are said to have popularized the handshake after judging it to be more egalitarian than to bow.
The handshake is a “literal gesture of human connection,” a symbol of how humans have evolved into deeply social and tactile animals, says Cristine Legare, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.
With a history going back thousands of years, the handshake may be too deep to be easily broken.
“The fact that we opted for the nudge as an alternative shows how important touch is – we didn’t want to lose that physical connection,” says Professor Legare.
This biological desire to touch and be touched is also found in other animals. In the 1960s, American psychologist Harry Harlow demonstrated how essential touch and affection are to the development of young Rhesus monkeys.
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Other examples from the animal kingdom include our closest cousins: chimpanzees usually touch the palms, kiss and sometimes kiss as a form of greeting. Giraffes use their necks, which can reach two meters in length, to adopt a type of behavior called “shrinking” – male giraffes entwining their necks with each other and swinging and rubbing to assess the strength and size of the other to establish dominance.
That said, there are many forms of human greetings around the world that avoid the transmission trap. Many cultures embrace by pressing the palms of the hands with the fingers pointing upward while being accompanied by a slight bow, the traditional Hindu greeting Namaste being one of the best known.
In Samoa, there is the “flash of the eyebrows” which consists in raising the eyebrows while making a big smile to the person you greet.
In Muslim countries, running your hand over a heart is a respectful way to greet someone you are not used to touching. And there is the Hawaiian shaka sign, adopted and popularized by American surfers, made by wrapping the three middle fingers and extending the thumb and smallest finger while shaking the hand back and forth to emphasize.
Physical touch has not always been rated as critical. During the first half of the 20th century, many psychologists believed that showing affection to children was just a sentimental gesture that was useless – even when warning that manifestations of affection could spread disease and contribute psychological problems of adults.
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In her book Don’t Look, Don’t Touch, behavior specialist Val Curtis of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine says that one of the possible reasons why handshakes and kisses on the cheeks persist are greetings because they signal that you trust the other person. enough to risk sharing the germs with – hence the history of practices that come and go in fashion according to public health concerns.
In the 1920s, articles appeared in the American Journal of Nursing warning that the hands are the agents of bacterial transfer and recommended that Americans adapt the Chinese custom of the time, to shake hand when welcoming a friend.
There have been more recent objections to handshakes prior to the coronavirus outbreak: in 2015, a UCLA hospital established a handshake-free zone in its intensive care unit (UCLA policy lasted only six months).
Meanwhile, many Muslim women around the world have opposed handshakes based on religious motives.
But despite such reservations and the impact of conscientious objectors at handshakes, over the course of the 20th century, the gesture became an almost universal and unassailable symbol of professional greeting.
Scientific studies of the ritual have identified how a good handshake activates the same part of the brain that processes other types of reward stimuli such as good food, drink and even sex.
A future without handshakes?
As some states in the United States begin to relax lockdowns, the future of the handshake remains uncertain.
“I don’t think we should ever shake hands, to be honest with you,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, a key member of the White House coronavirus task force, in April.
“Not only would it be good to prevent coronaviruses, but it would likely dramatically decrease influenza cases in this country. “
Social distancing guidelines will likely remain in place for a long time to come, according to U.S. government guidelines for reopening the country, particularly for vulnerable people like the elderly and those with medical comorbidities such as lung disease, obesity and diabetes.
This could lead to what Stuart Wolf, associate president for integration and clinical operations at Dell Medical, calls a “science fiction dystopia” where society would be divided into those who can touch and be affected and those who must stay isolated.
This could have serious psychological consequences, says Dr. Wolf.
“We already place such importance on youth and the strength of society, and this forced artificial distinction between the elderly and infirm and the young and healthy is likely to hit some people very hard. “
The urge to reach out – physically – is deeply rooted in us. There is a reason why an American president is supposed to shake hands with 65,000 people a year.
“Habits die hard,” said Elke Weber, a professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University who studies how people take risks. “On the other hand, social habits and customs can change and change when the social and economic context and, in this case, health, changes, [think of] foot fixing in China, which was also an ancient custom. “
There are already many contactless options. The arc, for example, is already widely practiced around the world – and has been credited with fewer deaths from coronaviruses in Thailand. Then there are hand signs, nods, smiles and a multitude of hand signals that do not involve physical contact.
But Professor Legare notes that one of the cruel ironies of Covid-19 is that it is precisely when humans are faced with stressful circumstances that they depend on human touch.
“Think about how we react when people are grieving after death or something bad has happened, it’s with a hug, or it could just be sitting next to a person and touching a shoulder. “
Health conventions like punches and elbows just don’t cut down on mustard for human connectivity.
Whenever they happen, there is always an internalized knowing knowing how they go against intuitive feel, notes Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at the Johnstone family at Harvard University, in an article for The Harvard Gazette, the university’s official news website.
“This explains why, at least in my experience, people accompany these gestures with a chuckle, as if to reassure each other that superficially aggressive displays are new conventions in an infectious era and offered in a spirit of camaraderie”, explains Professor Pinker. .
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Due to her work in public health, including infectious diseases, Deliana Garcia was already shaking hands with most people. But some habits are more difficult to break than others.
“I am a fanatic fanatic,” said Ms. Garcia, noting that social distancing from her 85-year-old mother has been particularly difficult.
“She’s so close, and I just want to walk over to her and kiss her little face and kiss her and tell her I love her.” “
This strong urge collides with concerns about transmission, leading to an “awkward dance” between the two, she says.
“Even as she approaches, I can feel anxious – what if I make her sick? Said Mrs. Garcia. “So I withdraw, but if she starts to move away, I am. I need the touch to make sure, and yet I can’t let it get close. We sort of repel each other like identical poles on magnets. “
As difficult as a handshake or contactless future, it’s better than the alternative, says Professor Weber. “I don’t think people are overreacting at this point, quite the contrary. “
“Surviving or trying to stay alive is another basic human impulse. The alternative is to go back to life as we know it and ignore the fact that a large number of elderly, overweight and comorbid people will die until we establish collective immunity, which will take a lot of time. ”
But don’t give up on the humble handshake yet. While avoiding illness is an essential part of human survival, the same is true for fulfilling and complex social lives, says Arthur Markman, professor in the department of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.
“Maybe we start by focusing on more systematic hand washing, hand sanitizers, and strategies to avoid touching your face rather than giving up on everything,” he says.
“The real concern is that we will develop a new standard without touching, and therefore we will not achieve what we lack by having no tactile contact with people in our social network. “