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Will the Coronavirus Kill the Centuries-Old Handshake?

April 13, 2020


Whether or not lockdown restrictions will end on the date set by White House officials is yet to be determined. However, as business returns to some degree of normalcy, it is unlikely that one of the ancient human gestures will survive this pandemic. Of the various forms of a non-verbal communication, the handshake is perhaps one of the oldest. Some scholars believe it originated during the caveman days as a gesture to ensure the hands held no weapons. In ancient Egypt, the handshake had special powers as Babylonian kings would grasp the hand of the statue of Marduk, as an annual gift of power was received from the patron deity. Archaeological ruins from 5th Century B.C. in Greece often displayed a handshake on funerary gravestones. In ancient Rome, soldiers would grasp each other’s sleeve while feeling for hidden weapons.

Modern-day handshakes evolved with slightly different customs throughout the global village. In America, we are encouraged to shake the hand of at least one person that we would not have shaken on National Handshake Day, which is celebrated each year on June 27th. However, based on recent remarks made by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, eliminating the traditional handshake may be a behavior that will need to change. In fact, the leading expert on the fight against the pandemic spread of the coronavirus is often seen onstage at press briefings with his arms tightly folded and hands tucked. Moreover, other medical experts tend to agree that we probably shouldn’t shake hands ever again. Not only would it help protect against the future spread of coronavirus, it should significantly reduce the spread of influenza and other infections worldwide.

In some parts of the world, a traditional handshake is performed mostly by men but rarely by women or children. Many countries agree on a handshake upon greeting (or parting) as well as when offering congratulations or as a sign of completing a deal. Following competitive events, participants often shake hands as a gesture of good sportsmanship. Some historians point to the Quakers as the most likely culture for spreading its use in America. Quakers believed an agreement was not official until both parties’ hands parted. Historic handshakes are often captured in works of art, like the grasp of hands between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House to end the Civil War. President William McKinley, known for personally greeting guest in a receiving line, was killed by an assassin’s gun hidden in a bandaged but extended right hand.

Based on the growing need for physical separation, the world may never again see a three-way handshake like the photo taken of President Harry Truman, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin at the end of the European occupation; or the symbolic stack of hands between President Jimmy Carter, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat following the 1978 Camp David Accords. The following year, the Harvard Negotiation Project was launched to better understand the role of negotiations in conflict resolution, which led to a symbolic handshake when the phase of “agreeing to disagree” is reached. Most recently, President Donald Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un gestured such trust and respect with a firm handshake at the country’s Demilitarized Zone.

So, what should you do on June 27, 2020? Maybe celebrate National Ice Cream Cake Day, which shares the date with what has become one of the world’s most deadly gestures.

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