The handshake goes back millennia. It’s a tried and true way to connect with one another in professional and social occasions on a deeper level. In the ninth century B.C., Assyrian King Shalmaneser III shook hands with a Babylonian ruler to affirm an alliance. In his Iliad and Odyssey, the ancient Greek poet Homer used handshakes to reflect oaths and trust. In the 17th century, Quakers saw handshakes as more egalitarian than bows and tips-of-the-hat, prompting its common use.
Yet amidst the novel coronavirus pandemic, some are reconsidering this time-tested tradition even after the current crisis has abated. While their reasons are understandable, this would be very unfortunate for our society.
Right now, Americans across the country understand the risks of shaking hands. Governments are taking notice and using the force of law to discourage it.
As 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler pointed out to me, Gov. Polis’s coronavirus order “actually makes it a crime to shake hands…That may be a great recommendation, and maybe the language could have been written as ‘Coloradans are strongly encouraged to.’ But instead they wrote, ‘Coloradans shall.’ Once the governor utters those words and adopts that order, it becomes punishable by a $1,000 fine or year in jail.”
Declaring handshakes illegal is an egregious overreach on Polis’s part. Moreover, the fact that a handshake could result in penalties as harsh as heroin possession is absurd.
Hopefully this dystopian novel we are all living right now — I think it’s called “The COVID-19 Games” — will be over soon, with our Right to Shake Hands restored. But what about society?
Given that infectious disease doctors warn handshakes are a prime way to spread infectious diseases, should we willingly abandon the handshake as a central custom of our day-to-day, in pursuit of a “less germy society,” or is it worth the risk to keep shaking hands?
On Friday, President Trump happily reiterated his personal view that we might be better off with no more handshakes. “Maybe some of these things (such as no handshakes) long-term will be good,” he said.
I disagree with the dealmaker president.
As a young kid, my dad taught me how to give a good handshake: hold a firm grip, not too tight; shake only a few times; look the other person in the eye and try to get the upper hand. At the very least, make sure you don't give a "fish" handshake. It wasn’t long before I tried it out for real.
I got involved in Colorado politics shortly before turning 14, months before the 2004 elections, going to the once-prominent Arapahoe County Republican Men’s Club. Throughout high school, I cut my political teeth getting up in front of the breakfast-goers — at least three times my age — and speaking my mind. I met politicians of all levels and fostered relationships that continue to this day. And because I was a teenager eager to gain the respect of much older adults, I knew I had to put Dad’s Handshake Lessons to work.
It’s often said, “You can tell a lot about a man by his handshake.” Teenage Jimmy came to understand handshakes are an important sign of respect. Many people trust someone’s word merely because “we shook on it.” Shaking hands demonstrates both authority and equality and offers an opportunity to assess a person’s sincerity while you look them straight in the eye. Sure, an exceptional politician can fake the two-eye gaze; but those who can’t look you in the eye probably can’t be trusted.
In a 2012 paper for the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, researchers confirmed a firm handshake can be critical to making a good first impression. The authors concluded that “a handshake preceding social interaction enhanced the positive impact of approach and diminished the negative impact of avoidance behavior on the evaluation of social interaction.”
This “first impression” idea is critical in getting a job, too. A 2008 study that put students through mock job interviews with businesspeople found those “who got high handshake marks were also rated most hireable.
We shake as a greeting, a goodbye and the sign of a deal. In truth, to stop shaking hands would be a disservice to ourselves and others. Let’s get back to shaking hands soon — and make a point of washing our hands more often, too.