But as an avid handshaker and something of an expert on the subject, I have to second the good doctor’s prescription.
No, my expertise doesn’t come from a lab or an academic degree. Rather, it was certified by Guinness World Records, after a friend and I in 2009 set the record (subsequently broken) for “Longest Continuous Handshake” to raise money for cancer research. How long, you ask? Fifteen hours, 15 minutes and 15 seconds. Hundredsof thousands of shakes. (The secret? Take turns every half hour, with one person doing the pumping and the other person’s limp hand just going along for the ride.) Imagine the longest awkward handshake of your life, and multiply it by about 3,600. The stunt was admittedly frivolous, but it forced me to study this practice inside and out, and left me hyper-attuned to the subtleties of the shake.
The most obvious is cleanliness. Since my marathon handshake, I have found myself noticing how often proffered hands were sticky or unaccountably damp. I still shook hands, since I appreciate the ritual’s social value. But shaking hands seemed increasingly paradoxical. If you wouldn’t take a handful of a grimy toilet seat, why press palms with a stranger who might have done just that? It’s difficult to make a good first impression when stirring such unsanitary thoughts.
But a deeper issue is the social anxiety fostered by handshaking, particularly for men. Boys are still taught that men judge others by the “quality” of their handshake — firm but not too firm, substantial but not lingering, eye contact but not creepy. Unsure that they have a properly manly shake, some overcompensate, engaging in a bizarre display of primatological dominance — the sort of aggressive squeezing and yanking that President Trump inflicts on other world leaders.
Although most guys don’t act that way, I realized that for many this dynamic adds a layer of mutual apprehension to greetings that ought to suggest openness and respect. And the overtones of physical competition can make the ritual unwelcoming to women. Hugging is the warmer option, but that quality — even before covid-19 struck — is what makes hugging inappropriate with strangers and in professional settings.
Yet what’s the alternative? Elbow bumps, foot taps and air high-fives have become popular during the pandemic, but they’re too obviously just temporary workarounds. Howie Mandel is famously an evangelist for the fist bump, but it’s too casual for funerals or other formal occasions. Perhaps we should follow Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recommendation last month that handshakes be replaced by the “namaste” gesture.
Pressing one’s palms and fingers together vertically, while bowing slightly, conveys something much closer to what we actually want a universal greeting to accomplish. In its original Hindu form, it expresses “I bow to the divine in you.” In a secular Western context (without actually saying “namaste”), the gesture communicates good will without any handshake-like undertones of status or dominance. It signals purpose and self-mastery; no need to worry that anyone is judging the quality of the execution. And instead of echoing medieval warrior culture, as the handshake does, the namaste gesture evokes the reverence of Christian prayer.
To be clear, I’m not shakephobic. I truly enjoyed a heartfelt handshake before social distancing intervened. But the value wasn’t in the physical grabbing of flesh — it was in the friendliness that the ritual communicates in the context of American customs.
Among the many things we’ll reassess in the wake of covid-19, why not consider whether the namaste can permanently do that job better? I don’t expect that this greeting, already popular among the graying hippies in my California hometown, will instantly win over my relatives in conservative Indiana, but its wordless suggestion of warmth and sincerity might win out eventually. A certain immunologist could do the country a favor by trying the namaste at the next White House coronavirus briefing.