The past months of 2020 have rocked the foundation of how we engage with each other and the world. Cultural norms have shifted and readjusted creating room for new pathways, thoughts and ideas to take hold. Change is all around us and perhaps the world will never be the same again.
Perhaps one of the best indications of the extent to which things are changing is the end of a global custom we have held dear for millenia; the handshake. Dating back to the 5th Century BCE, this greeting is a ritual passed down from a time when ancient Greeks would shake hands as a sign of peace to show each other that they did not hold a weapon.
The greeting survived the rise and fall of the Greek and Roman empires (although it is worth noting that the Romans held forearms instead of hands to ensure against any weapons hidden up their greeter’s sleeve) and found its place in daily European customs which then spread it around the world.
Prior to the pandemic, handshakes were the ubiquitous symbol for all international greetings – be it socially or for business. With germs and the spread of disease being a major concern on everyone’s mind, however, this salutation may well be a thing of the past. The US director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci recently suggested that “Americans should never shake hands again.”
The current climate begs the question if there is a better way to greet each other. Indeed – greeting customs around the world are as diverse as the cultures they belong to. In New Zealand, Ethopian men touch shoulders, in Tibet sticking one’s tongue out is considered a sign of welcoming respect and in many Asian cultures bowing is the standard salute.
These low-touch ways to welcome and acknowledge each other seem more hygienic and practical in the context of a world burdened with concerns of a lingering potentially deadly disease.
Certainly the normal kiss-on-the-cheek and hug greetings of many Middle Eastern and European cultures, seem out of place in today’s reality. Nevertheless, perhaps this trend towards distancing has been ongoing for some time already. A recent study in the USA indicates that many people are preferring to ‘fist bump’ (a touching of knuckles) rather than shake hands due to health concerns.
As we start to ease out of the quarantined and isolated states that we have maintained for months perhaps it is time to really reevaluate archaic social norms. Should the citizens of densely populated cities reduce the rate of contact they maintain with each other by bowing instead? Will the handshake survive or will it become a distant and oddly obsolete custom that will fill pages of history books one day? Only time will tell.
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