SPRING is sprung, the crocuses are blooming, and I am embarked on a secret mission. No covert activity or coercion involved – I am on my own citizen’s protest. My endeavour – to return the handshake to its rightful place in day-to-day human engagement.
The handshake went missing in March 2020, one of the many social conventions lost in the mass insanity that is Covid. It was another imposed change to who and what we are and a degradation of our culture.
Its disappearance reinforced the fear narrative that each and every one of us was a threat to every other. We were all germ-laden vectors of the new plague and must keep our distance. Touching was reckless; shaking hands might kill us. Isolation, working from home, distance learning and Zoom meetings confirmed the danger.
Hand hygiene was hyped up as critical in the battle with Covid-19. Public Health propagandists reminded us to wash after going to the loo, before preparing food, eating and after ‘coughing, sneezing, or blowing one’s nose’. Apparently singing ‘Happy Birthday’ during the act frightened off the virus.
If soap and water was ‘not readily available’ the NHS recommended the use of a hand sanitiser containing at least 60 per cent alcohol.
As with every other bonkers diktat, people complied, buying hand sanitisers by the box, much of it of questionable provenance. In January 2022 the US Food and Drug Administration warned of the dangers of hand sanitisers labelled to contain ethanol (ethyl alcohol) but which actually contain methanol, 1-propanol and other contaminants. Methanol (wood alcohol) is a known toxin when absorbed through the skin and life-threatening when ingested.
Some sanitisers contain unacceptable levels of benzene, acetaldehyde and acetal contaminants which have been linked to certain types of cancers and can cause ‘serious illness or death: Acetal can irritate the upper respiratory tract, eyes, and skin’.
Others show ‘high levels of Burkholderia cepacia complex and Ralstonia pickettii, [microbial contamination] which can lead to serious infections, including the skin, soft tissues, lungs or bloodstream’ according to reports in the American Pharmaceutical Review. People with compromised immune systems are at increased risk.
Tiny amounts of hand sanitiser can be toxic, sometimes lethal, to young children and babies. Even getting rid of them is problematic. America’s FDA warns not to ‘pour these products down the drain or flush them’ but to treat them as ‘hazardous waste’. Who saw these warnings in the British media?
What replaced the handshake was an alien, toe-curling display of fist-bumping, then even worse, elbow-bumping, from the likes of Matt ‘I just fell in love’ Hancock and Boris ‘up for anything’ Johnson. Everyone was at it: ‘Health’ technocrats, athletes and ‘celebs’ eager to practise the new normal.
I resent so much of what was imposed on us in the name of public health and really consider the handshake to be worth defending. Robert E Brown and Dorothea Johnson in The Power of Handshaking categorise it as one of the most valuable acts of human nonverbal communication: ‘a form of interactive body language that offers insights into how the other person views the world, him or herself, and you’.
The handshake has a long and disputed history. Pictorial evidence has been found on remnants of pottery showing that ancient Assyrians used to clasp hands to seal a deal or to indicate a peaceful approach.
There are reliefs of the Greek goddess of war Athena putting down her spear to shake hands with Hera, Queen of the Olympians after a tiff. Athena is shown moving her spear to her left hand in a gesture of disarmament and an attempt at conciliation.
In medieval Europe, knights would clasp each other’s arms in order to shake loose any weapons such as daggers that might be up the other’s sleeves and the handshake is understood to have flowed directly from that practice.
Until Covid, the handshake was the only socially acceptable way to touch another person in business. In corporate life, I was schooled in the importance of making a good impression on colleagues and clients alike – a sound handshake was a rite of passage, another thing denied our young.
A handshake was an important gesture signalling maturity and good intent: physically close but not too close, firm but not too firm, dry palms and good eye contact. Sure, that’s a complicated mix, and if it goes wrong, it can cause disproportionate embarrassment – you never forget the clammy limp hand, the creepy clasp or the missed target. Alternatively, when done well, a simple handshake can break the ice and foster goodwill.
We were socialised to understand that you can learn a lot about someone from their handshake, a bit like their shoes. It’s common to assume that a limp handshake is the sign of a weak person, or that an aggressive bone-crusher is compensating for something. To refuse to shake hands with someone was a serious rebuff.
There are multiple versions of the modern handshake. Perhaps the most notorious are those used by ‘secret societies’ which allow members to recognise each other. Much ridiculed, Freemasonry still exerts influence in public life; estimates suggest there are more than 300,000 active British members.
Most of my career was in banking and I was often the only woman in meetings. Clients would greet my male colleagues with a ‘double-grip’ handshake (a handshake plus shoulder or elbow grip, much used by politicians and used car salesmen) but often I would get a hug. If the clients were Japanese, Saudi or Pakistani I might be ignored.
Sociologically, the handshake is important and a symbol of things hidden below the surface. It can be a sign of power and status, of acceptance and agreement. What does fist or elbow-bumping tell us?
The blessed Dr Anthony Fauci has advised: ‘I don’t think we should ever shake hands ever again.’ I have shaken and will continue to shake the hand of every adult I meet – and some children too. I commend the transgression to you.