When we waved goodbye to our life pre-COVID, did we also say goodbye to the handshake?
Searching for the positives we can thank the Covid-19 pandemic for, I console myself that the end of cheek kissing as a form of greeting must be nigh.
Giving a peck on each cheek, whilst making a stifled mwa-sound, has become almost de rigueur in increasingly widening circles here in England. Although it is a common practice in France and other European countries, I have always found it mildly disconcerting when someone I barely knew presented a cheek in anticipation of me pecking it or, worse still, launched themselves rapidly in the direction of my face.
In the light of COVID-19, I am sure that we will all think twice about doing that again.
Imagine a hot summer day at the excavation site of the Assyrian city of Nimrud, located just about thirty kilometers south of modern day Mosul. Your team has been digging for months, and so far have unearthed some ancient writing and other priceless artifacts. For a while, however, there has been no progress. You are on the verge of calling it a day, when a shout goes up around the ruins. You seem to have struck gold!
Or, well, sand stone.
It’s a relief — or carving, essentially — dating back almost to the ninth century BC. It depicts one of the Assyrian kings, Shalmaneser III, sealing an alliance with a Babylonian king by shaking hands. It’s an image that wouldn’t be out of place in a boardroom today.
It’s also at least 300 years older than any existing visual of a handshake — the earliest we can say that they existed as a social custom at all.
Most tactile engagements with our environment are through our hands and it is a natural reflex, when someone comes into our social space, to grasp them. Societal rules dictate that the correct way to do so is to clasp their right hand with yours and gently squeeze. The ‘gentle squeeze’ is a lot more important than it seems — the receiver can tell a lot about your personality depending on the way you grasp their hand!
A limpid and seemingly disinterested handshake conveys feelings of indifference, weakness or a lack of commitment. These people tend to be neurotic, shy and less open to new experiences. On the other hand, those who seem determined to temporarily restrict the flow of blood to your extremities and to crush your bones have a misguided sense that they are displaying dominance, superiority and a no-nonsense approach.
Seeing as a lot rests on one handshake, it is hardly surprising that etiquette books throughout the 19th century had pages and pages dedicated to mastering the perfect handshake. Some spoke about handshakes between close friends, some about those between strangers, and still others about handshakes between a hostess and her guests.
The general consensus of these books seemed to be that the handshake had to be firm: not so strong that it hurts (like the bone crusher) yet not as limp as a dead fish. Some even warned that an injudicious choice of handshake could lead to social ostracism, one from 1877 advising that “a gentleman who rudely presses the hand offered him in salutation, or too violently shakes it, ought never to have the opportunity to repeat their offence”. Sound advice, I would say.
Handshaking, as we saw with the unearthed relief, is no new practice. In the earlier days extending one’s empty hand was considered a show of peace and trust — and the up and down motion used while shaking hands was sure to dislodge any nasty surprises (read: blades) hidden up one’s sleeve!
Even Homer, in the Iliad, showed how clasping hands was seen as an affirmation to an oath made. An example would be Agamemnon reminding his brother Melanus of their oaths to take revenge on Troy, which were in the form of “drink offerings of unmixed wine and handclasps in which we put our trust”.
The ancient Greeks, for example, practised a form of handshake known as dexiosis, which would roughly translate to “taking the right hand”. Stelae — a type of stone tablet bearing inscriptions and carvings — showed mortals and gods communing through a handshake. On gravestones the deceased would sometimes be depicted shaking hands with a family member. Its reasoning varies with the expert: it is either a final farewell or the eternal bond that links the living with the dead.
Handshakes were more than just an action — they were a symbol of a bond or vow between two parties. People is Medieval Europe, in the 12th century, immortalized handshakes by carving them into rings! These rings, known as fede rings were traded during marriages or between deeply close friends; to symbolise a vow being made.
The word ‘fede’ comes from Italian, meaning loyalty and faith — which is also what the rings mean! They show two hands holding on to each other, an image of the traditional act of married couples doing the same during their wedding.
Wedding rings are thought to originate from the myth of Ouroboros — the serpent that eats its own tail. Others think that it shows eternal fidelity, and a promise to be together till eternity. The first wedding rings were traced back roughly to 4000 BC, in the Egyptian civilization. The Egyptians put their rings on what we now call the ‘ring finger’ because they believed that it was that finger that was connected directly to the heart. Subsequent civilizations followed the same things, with only the ring varying. For example gimmel rings, which followed fede rings, were interlocking rings that the bride and groom each wore a part of before the wedding. During the wedding, these pieces would be joined together and worn by the bride, to show that the union of lives was complete.
Of course, alternatives to the handshake have always existed in various societies at various points in time.
The elbow bump, initially popularised in the Kaluapapa Leprosy Settlement in Hawaii in the late 1960s and finding a new lease of life during the 2014 Ebola epidemic to such an extent that it was dubbed the “Ebola elbow”, has also seen a revival. As a manoeuvre, though, it is hardly the epitome of social grace. The doffing of a cap or hat not only has connotations of a master servant relationship but also requires you to wear one in the first place.
Casting the net wider, there is ojigi and specifically ritsurei, the ritual of bowing as practised in Japan. Used as a sign of salutation, as well as reverence, apology or gratitude, you must keep your back perfectly straight whilst bending your body at the waist to pull it off properly. If that seems a little over the top, there is always the more Teutonic nod of the head. The accompanying click of the heels is probably unnecessary.
In the Indian subcontinent and other parts of Southeast Asia, people are greeted and taken leave of with the Añjali Mudrā, a slight bow, hands pressed together with palms touching and fingers pointing upwards and thumbs close to the chest. The gesture may be accompanied with the word “Namaste”, meaning welcome. In Thai culture, a similar gesture is known as the wai. It has always struck me as particularly elegant and tops my list of greetings to adopt when social intercourse resumes.
Today, the handshake is deeply ingrained into the way we interact with our friends and acquaintances, old and new. However, in these mysophobic times a simple gesture has become a scarily efficient method of transmitting germs.
While handshakes probably fulfilled all of our social welcomes in days gone by, we now live in a world where a harmless handshake could potentially be the death of us. Literally.
What will replace it is open to speculation. I may be a tad old-fashioned, but to me the fist bump, out of the context of the sporting arena and practised by anyone other than millennials, looks ludicrous. I likely also won’t be following the traditional Tibetan practice of sticking your tongue out in greeting.
When we waved goodbye to 2019 BC (Before Coronavirus), did we say farewell to a way of life that we took too much for granted? Handshakes are a simple but core part of our culture — it’s up to us now to see what they become from here.