Shaking hands ‘will come back’ after Covid-19

Hand-me-down: Ella Al-Shamahi estimates that the handshake is seven million years old.

Will we ever shake hands again? Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, some have suggested the age of the handshake is over forever. But one scientist thinks shaking hands is in our DNA.

This time last year, Covid-19 had only just reached the Western world. But already amongst its very first casualties was an ancient institution, respected across the planet: the handshake.

Now a new book by palaeoanthropologist Ella Al-Shamahi argues that the handshake is not yet dead. Rather, she writes in The Handshake: A Gripping History, it is “in temporary lockdown, social-distancing, quarantining but, like most of us, going nowhere.”

Previously, most anthropologists believed that handshakes were born in the Middle East and Europe and spread around the world in the 19th Century by European missionaries.

But Al-Shamahi believes that shaking hands is a universal custom – one embedded in our very DNA and going back thousands, perhaps millions, of years.

Handshakes are recorded in very early human civilisations: characters in the Iliad shake hands before doing battle. Ancient Romans shook hands at weddings. And uncontacted peoples in New Guinea, when they first met Europeans, seemed to understand instinctively what their visitors meant when they stretched out their hands.

They even seem to appear in our close non-human relatives. Chimpanzees and bonobos will make up after a fight by touching each other’s fingers and palms. For Al-Shamahi, all of this suggests that handshakes are not learnt behaviours: they are innate.

So why would human beings have evolved the handshake? Some think the answer is chemical. Like animals, human beings can detect scents from each other, and these act as a kind of chemical warning system. Shaking hands lets us get close enough to tell if another person feels fear or anger towards us. Studies have shown that it is common for humans to sniff their hands after shaking, allowing them to analyse the scents the other person has left behind.

Of course, not every culture does shake hands. In Japan, it is traditional to bow when meeting someone – a custom that some people have credited for the country’s low infection rates of Covid-19.

Under Islamic law, it is recommended that men shake hands with each other, but men and women must not shake hands. In India and parts of South East Asia, the Namaste gesture is the usual way of greeting someone. In France and Egypt, people kiss each other on the cheeks as well as shaking hands: these kisses are known as “bises”.

Al-Shamahi thinks that this is because these cultures have evolved out of shaking hands – in the same way that despite humans evolving to eat meat, some cultures have developed a fully vegetarian diet.

And it could be that western countries are starting to go the same way. Even before the pandemic, the handshake was already in decline. In the 20th Century, people of all ages in the Western world would naturally shake hands when first meeting each other.

But today, young people are much less likely to shake hands with people their own age, preferring a fist bump, a hug or even just a nod.

Will we ever shake hands again?

Shaken not stirred

Yes, say some. Shaking hands, along with other forms of physical contact, are essential to humanity. We use handshakes to establish a bond with other people, show our trust in them and our goodwill towards them, or to size them up as an opponent. This complex social custom is burnt so deeply into our relationships with other people that nothing can replace it.

Not at all, say others. The handshake was already on its way out and the pandemic has simply hurried along the process. For many young people, handshakes seem much too formal – even unnatural and awkward. Health concerns have simply provided yet another reason to do away with a habit that had outlived its usefulness. New means of social interaction will evolve in its place.

You Decide

  1. What could people do to greet each other, instead of shaking hands, while avoiding contact?
  2. Is it important to maintain cultural traditions even when they pose a health risk?

Activities

  1. Design a public health notice drawing people’s attention to the dangers of shaking hands during the pandemic.
  2. Divide the class into two groups to debate the question: is it time to abandon the handshake forever?

Some People Say...

“Only truthful hands write true poems. I cannot see any basic difference between a handshake and a poem.”

Paul Celan (1920 – 1970), Romanian-German poet

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most people agree that physical contact is essential for human beings’ health and happiness. Depriving children of physical touch slows down their mental and social development, and can even damage their immune system and make them act more aggressively. This is because physical contact with a trusted person is essential for reducing levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Consistently high stress levels are bad for mental and physical health.
What do we not know?
There is some debate over what it means for a behaviour to be “innate” or “learned”. Although scientific studies often rely on the distinction between these two, they are not always mutually exclusive. Walking is an innate human capability, but we still have to learn how to do it. We might say that all human beings have an innate tendency to touch hands, but each culture has its own specific way of doing so that has to be taught to its members.

Word Watch

Palaeoanthropologist
A scientist who studies the evolutionary origins of modern human beings.
Missionaries
A member of a religious group sent out to convert others to their religion. In the 19th Century, missionaries from Europe were also meant to “civilise” the people they converted, which in reality meant forcing them to behave like Europeans.
The Iliad
An Ancient Greek epic poem, telling the story of the fall of Troy (also known as Ilion).
Uncontacted peoples
The name given to cultures that live without any sustained contact with people from outside their own communities. They are often in danger from other human beings, because they lack immunity to most diseases that are endemic in the rest of the population.
New Guinea
The world’s second-largest island, located in the southern Pacific ocean near Indonesia and Australia.
Chimpanzees and bonobos
Human beings’ closest living relatives. Humans and bonobos can understand each other’s facial expressions, and some bonobos have been taught to communicate in English.
Innate
Literally “born into”. Describes any behaviour that comes naturally to a being, i.e. is not learned.
Namaste gesture
Formed by putting the palms of the hands together in front of the chest, fingers pointing upwards. The word is related to the Sanskrit namah, meaning “bow”.

Subjects

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