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Getting to grips with the future of the handshake



BACK in the early days as Covid loomed on our horizon, it was something of a weird novelty to bump elbows and tap ankles.

Hands, after all, were only for washing; over and over again and at length while singing Happy Birthday. More than a year on, the thought of sharing a handshake with someone outwith your personal bubble is the weird novelty.

Someone brushed against me by accident last week when I was in the post office. I’m ashamed to admit that my automatic reaction was to physically recoil. Just a year ago or so, this sort of casual interaction would not have been given a second thought.

There has been speculation that Covid has changed the face of physical touch forever and that the simple act of shaking hands is a thing of the past.

Hands are now sinister – breeding grounds for bugs and germs and all sorts of killer bacteria. We must keep them to ourselves.

So have we waved goodbye to this simple act of friendship?

Apparently not, according to paleoanthropologist Ella Al-Shamahi, who has written a biography of the handshake.

She argues that shaking hands is not a learned cultural behaviour but part of our DNA and comes to this conclusion by examining chimps, our closest living relative, who, just like humans, shake hands – or more specifically fingers – in a range of scenarios. If both chimps and humans use the handshake, Al-Shamahi reasons, it’s likely the gesture began before the species diverged, some seven million years ago. Why, then, are there some countries where handshakes aren’t a part of the culture?

She says this is down to “ancient epidemic events” where touch became taboo and stayed that way. So won’t the same thing happen after Covid-19? Al-Shamahi reckons this is unlikely unless we experience a century of pandemics, for which she thankfully sees little evidence.

“Only the immediate fear of death or serious illness is enough to suppress our need to shake hands,” she concludes in her book The Handshake: A Gripping History.

She gives a fascinating account of the history of this seemingly simple gesture, outlining its strengths and versatility, pointing out that it is appropriate for everything from social events to sport to politics.

Former US president Theodore Roosevelt holds the Guinness World Record for the most handshakes by a head of state – 8513 in a single day – while Lyndon B Johnson shook so many hands that his own were often bruised.

But it was the 25th US president William McKinley who suffered most for the handshake – in 1901 he was assassinated when he proffered his hand.

Despite McKinley’s misfortune, Al-Shamahi claims that there is “no room for anything other than positivity in the handshake”.

The movement of the skin releases oxytocin, a social bonding hormone, which triggers “trust and protective” instincts, and our fingers and palms have a high number of touch receptors.

So fist bumps really don’t cut it. Perhaps the handshake will be welcomed back with open arms after all.



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