The Handshake Is Dead – Long Live The Curtsy

The Handshake Is Dead – Long Live The Curtsy

The handshake has a long and curious history as far as greetings go. Most historians place the first instance back in the 5th century BCE in Greece, where it was used to demonstrate that one was not carrying a weapon. When used in a commerce context in public markets, it was often combined with another new fad sweeping early civilization – waving (to demonstrate you weren’t holding a weapon in the other hand, either).

Handshakes were, in effect, a very early form of customer authentication.

From Greece, they traveled the world – first to Rome, where they were modified into something more akin to a mutual forearm grab to make sure the other person didn’t have a dagger up his or her sleeve. We’re going to guess Caesar forgot to make the greeting rounds on the Ides of March, and that history might have turned out a good deal differently if he had. From Rome, the practice moved on to the medieval knights. They adopted the practice of grabbing hands as a greeting and introduced the rigorous shaking part, as an attempt to knock loose any weapons another knight might be trying to sneak.

But despite a rather successful 2,500-year run, the handshake might be on its way out, another casualty of COVID-19. Speaking to journalist Kate Linebaugh on The Journal podcast earlier this week, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony Fauci noted that he believes it’s time to retire the handshake to the dustbin of history in the name of protecting human health.

“When you gradually come back, you don’t jump into it with both feet,” Dr. Fauci said. “You say, what are the things you could still do and still approach normal? One of them is absolute compulsive handwashing. The other is, you don’t ever shake anybody’s hands. In fact, I don’t think we should ever shake hands ever again, to be honest with you. Not only would it be good to prevent coronavirus disease; it probably would decrease instances of influenza dramatically in this country.”

No more handshakes? How will we know our business associates and new acquaintances aren’t carrying daggers or attempting to cheat in jousting competitions?

Okay, maybe we don’t technically need the handshake anymore – but assuming we’ll want some kind of standard greeting when this is over, we’ll likely have to replace it. And that might be a little trickier than you think. A quick survey of the world’s greeting traditions indicates that quite a few of them have the same defect as a handshake, and will probably go to the discard pile along with it.

As it turns out, the entire world of human greetings seems to have been designed to thwart Dr. Anthony Fauci.

The double-cheek kiss, popular in Europe and the Middle East, is clearly much worse than the handshake – as is the Slavic tradition of greeting people with kisses directly on the mouth. Pretty much all of the greetings that involve putting your mouth on someone else are probably off the table moving forward. Maori tribesmen in New Zealand greet each other by rubbing noses, while Kenyan men tap foreheads – again, no and no. Ugandan men bump shoulders, which is better insofar as one is not breathing directly into someone else’s face, but it’s still too much contact.

Los Angelenos are getting somewhat closer, with a tendency to skip the cheeks (or the lips) and go with the classic double air kisses. That, however, has the dual problems of pushing viruses into the air and looking absolutely ridiculous. The Tibetan tradition of sticking one’s tongue out in greeting is a slight improvement in terms of how silly one looks while doing it, but is still sub-ideal from a virus-spreading standpoint – and in a world where everyone is wearing masks over their faces while in public, it really doesn’t work, since no one can see your tongue.

In fact, when scouring the world’s classic greetings for possible replacements for the handshake, only two made the cut. The first is the most obvious: bowing. It’s easy to do from a socially acceptable four feet away, it has been popular for roughly 1,000 years longer than handshaking has – and it seems now may be the time it will finally end its millennia-long rivalry with the handshake, and just about everything else.

And honestly, bowing is fine from a public health standpoint, but it’s a bit boring. We would instead recommend adopting the curtsy as the new universal form of human greeting. Yes, we know that historically, curtsying is the female equivalent of bowing, and that it typically involves picking up the edges of one’s gown. We have two replies to that: First of all, people have been working from home for two months, and who knows what they are going to leave their house wearing.

Second, do you know what item of clothing was made to be curtsied in?  

The bathrobe.

And do you know what item of clothing your co-workers have all been wearing for the last three to five weeks, and might very well forget to take off when they leave the house in two months? 

Yup, the bathrobe.

We rest our case.

And if not the curtsy, on the off chance that we don’t redesign our societal sartorial preferences about daytime bathrobe wearing, then what?

Well, there is the standard military salute – though we suspect that might feel weird to people, and besides, soldiers probably should get to keep their unique thing. 

For a variation on that idea, we think the Vulcan “live long and prosper” salute has a lot of merit. But it might take some practice, as making a V with your fingers takes some motor coordination – and there is the small problem of billions of die-hard Star Wars fans who will likely refuse to see anything derived from Star Trek as a sign of goodwill. 

Fist bumps and high-fives are probably out for the same reason that handshakes are – but elementary school children nationwide have spent the last few months perfecting what is known as the “air-five” or the “air-bump,” where hands/fists are brought within inches of each other to simulate the slap/bump experience without actually touching. That, however, still requires being closer than six feet from someone, and in the worst-case scenario, it could end with misjudged distance and someone getting punched in the face.

For a really outside-the-box idea, PYMNTS believes the video below offers the best possible option for society to consider.  

Yes, that is the video for the Macarena.  

Hear us out. We think this is the greeting innovation that society didn’t know it needed. 

First, you can do every part of the Macarena from a respectable six feet away. Second, if everyone starts doing the dance in the presence of every new person they meet, we can promise no one will ever get within six feet of another stranger ever again. So not only does it respect social distancing, it re-enforces it. Third, we think it would be very difficult to hide a weapon on one’s person while doing all the steps of the Macarena. Fourth, we’re all going to be inside for a while, so we’ll have plenty of time to perfect our greeting dances. 

Admittedly, our staff – like yours – has been working from home for a while now, so perhaps our finger is less on the pulse of this subject than it could be. But our data tell us that consumers have been changing quite a lot in the last 22 days. They’ve rewritten their lives around a very new paradigm, and done so very fast. They’re cooking instead of ordering out, they’ve refocused much of their spending around necessities and they are worried. Worried about their jobs, worried about their economic future and worried about their health – so worried, in fact, that most say the only thing that will convince them it’s time to go back to normal is the development of a vaccine. A vaccine, experts estimate, that is more than a year away from going to market.

Which means instead of going back to normal, what seems more likely right now is that the world will be building a new normal. A new normal for shopping, for healthcare, for entertainment and for socializing. A new world where there might not be handshakes.

But that is not necessarily bad news – and many of the innovators PYMNTS has interviewed over the last several weeks think there is good reason to suspect that the new shopping, new healthcare, new entertainment and new socializing could well be better than the old versions.

And if the handshake is actually replaced by the Macarena?

We defy anyone to tell us that is not a dramatically improved world.