COVID-19 Updates

Post-Pandemic, Do Handshakes Stay “In Business”?

April 22, 2020

Making a new acquaintance. Meeting an old friend. Closing a deal…In certain countries around the world, a physical handshake ── in both business and personal situations ── creates and reinforces culture and social bonds. But, in the wake of a global health pandemic that has resulted in social distancing practices worldwide, will this time-honored gesture of goodwill survive?

Origins of the Handshake

Almost every human culture employs some physical gesture of greeting – a bow, a handshake, or even a kiss on the cheek. The handshake has been around for thousands of years. Depictions of handshakes can be found in the works of Homer, in Greek funerary art, and on Roman coins. At the base of a column at the Acropolis, Hera shakes hands with Athena.

With such a long and varied history, no one can quite pinpoint the handshake’s exact origins. Most popular theories consider it an explicit overture of peace – holding an empty sword hand out as proof of goodwill and assurance of safety. Some even posit that the up and down motion was originally meant to dislodge any smaller weaponry concealed in a sleeve. Unlike a bow, a curtsy, or a tip of the hat, the handshake places both parties on even ground, which may explain its broader acceptance.

Even in countries with a different default gesture for greeting, handshakes are an integral part of the business world. A handshake signals agreement and an openness to collaboration. It shows commitment to honor an agreement and to meet on fair ground. It builds trust.

The Pandemic Effect

Sheryl Hamilton of Carleton University in Ottawa calls our current hypervigilance “pandemic culture” and says it can accelerate change in human behavioral rituals. Healthcare professionals and organizations have advocated for thoroughly washing hands to kill the virus, and we have a heightened awareness of what we touch — including others’ hands. Hamilton traces the initial shift in our disease anxiety to the SARS outbreak, swine flu, and H1N1, culminating in the current fear of contact associated with COVID-19. These outbreaks had a deeper cultural impact than earlier epidemics such as cholera or the 1918 flu. They jolted Western nations out of a sense of false security stemming from a brief lull in epidemic events in the 1970s.

What’s Next?

In Britain during the 15th century’s bubonic plague, the cheek kiss was banned as a greeting by order of the king. The practice never really regained a foothold there despite its continued popularity in Europe. Now, in wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, France has cautioned its citizens against this common greeting.

So how will COVID-19 affect social and business rituals in the long term?

In early January, before governments across the globe, beginning in APAC, moved to stricter isolation guidelines, we were encouraged to replace our familiar handshake with an elbow touch or the more awkward foot bump. Many experts believe that we will see some long-term changes to these social behaviors, including an expansion of our personal “bubble”. People who live in less densely populated areas such as North America or Europe already allow each other more physical space than those in more densely populated regions like Asia. As we inch back into public interaction post-pandemic, we would expect something closer to the recommended six-foot buffer to hold across the broader population. That physical distancing and residual anxiety may also lead to the rapid decline of the handshake in favor of low or no contact acknowledgement – a fist bump? Or just a friendly smile or nod? Or perhaps we’ll find comfort in the formality of a slight bow after our current situation subsides. Regardless, in our global efforts to limit physical contact and flatten the curve, the nature of this current outbreak is sure to drive impacts on cultural business etiquette concerning non-verbal communication.