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​Is this the last farewell for the handshake?

​Is this the last farewell for the handshake?

Will even the all-important, some say essential, hug become a greeting that has to be rethought and reconfigured? The answer to these questions is ‘most likely not’ but in a COVID-19 world many established thoughts, traditions, customs, and practices are receiving a second look.

Human beings are naturally extremely attached to our hands. For what they can do. Not to mention the essential part they play in connecting with the real and virtual worlds. In many cultures the hands are involved in intimate moments of greeting and engagement.

So how did something so ingrained in many cultures and societies become Public Health Enemy #1? The answer rests in the ‘hands’ of Covid-19. Of all the behavioural changes prompted by this crisis, one of the most noticeable has been the scrutiny placed on the handshake. Prompting the desperate search for safer alternatives such as the bow, wave, elbow, shoe shake or fist bump to greet people.

For something so fundamental to our culture these alternatives were at first laughable but then they became the new norm.

Trade off on traditions

The tradition of hand shaking dates back to 5th Century BC Greece where it was a recognised symbol of peace. In Medieval Europe Knights used the hand shaking device as a means of ascertaining whether the person on the other side of the ‘shake’ was bearing hidden weapons.

In more modern times a handshake agreement was legally binding and an indication that the broad fabric of a ‘deal’ had been reached. The handshake became an affirmation that a person’s word was their bond.

As the implications of the pandemic reached fever pitch public health professionals identified the potential danger hand shaking and hugging presented. Coming from a place that is warm, wet and a perfect transmission for spreading disease the handshake had the potential of becoming a lethal weapon.

A senior health writer for a major international publication caught the mood of the world: “Remember when the idea of shaking someone’s hand didn’t fill your mind with fear of receiving or spreading a deadly disease? The coronavirus pandemic has, at least temporarily, killed the handshake and the hug. The question is, when the coronavirus outbreak is over, what forms of touch will return, and what will disappear?”

Leading by example

German Chancellor Angela Merkel raised some eyebrows when she announced she would avoid the handshake during the pandemic and expected others to follow suit. Her proclamation, though understandable, was a signal of the seriousness with which she viewed the situation, given that handshaking is such a deeply ingrained ritual in tradition-bound Germany.

Other countries and cultures were prompted to take a fresh look at their traditional greetings and try to come up with alternatives in the short and even the longer term.

Such as sticking one’s tongue out in Tibet; cheek kissing in France; or the Kunik in Greenland that involves placing your nose and mouth next to someone to breathe their air. Bowing in Japan, or the namaste greeting of India proved to be more hygienic forms of greeting and, for the time being, have been adopted by other cultures.


Illustration by Max Pepper | CNN

In Aotearoa New Zealand the Tangata Whenua traditions of personal greeting and whanau connection also came under scrutiny. Iwi, hapū and Māori organisations have worked with the country’s Ministry of Health and other bodies to ensure safety. This has included adjusting tikanga and cultural practices to maintain physical distance and using tools such as video conferencing to support.

In support of these initiatives New Zealand’s The University of Auckland has launched a study entitled Harirū, Hongi and Hau. With a focus on giving voice to kaumātua experiences and recommendations in relation to how older Māori understand hau (vitality of a person), bodily fluids and the tapu of the body. With implications for navigating advice and regulations around personal distancing, self-isolating, and gatherings.

Project researcher Professor Ngapare Hopa says: “New learnings come out of horrendous events. The Covid-19 pandemic will challenge the foundations of Māori well-being and cultural practice as we know it. The situation means that we are being forced to think about old practices and beliefs.”

These sentiments are consistent across most countries and cultures.

Health care professionals around the country, and the world, are also relooking at best practice. In a 2014 paper, researcher Dr Mark Sklansky and his colleagues argued that health care workers can keep patients safe by keeping their hands to themselves. Although many may have scoffed at the idea before, changes in how we interact with one another now seem inevitable—both in hospitals and beyond. Such is the influence of the pandemic.

Even if the ways we touch one another change, we will need some form of social contact in our lives. Touching one another, after all, fosters emotional connection and strengthens social ties. The same ones that came through uniting New Zealand as a team intent on being open minded and engaged in solution finding even under lockdown.

After all, we are only human.