Editor’s Note: This article is part of “Uncharted,” a series about the world we’re leaving behind, and the one being remade by the pandemic.
In February 1958, Science Digest, inspired by the launch of Sputnik and the consequent hastening of the space race, asked a question that was both timely and absurd: What will space people look like? Consulting unnamed scientists, the magazine concluded that extraterrestrials would likely “bear a strong resemblance to the man next door”: an upright posture, two eyes, two arms, two legs. The planetary neighbors would act like humans as well; the Digest supplemented its story with a drawing of two visitors arriving, via flying saucer, on Earth. One of them, smiling, extends its hand to a man who awaits them—a being so humanlike, in body and in culture, that it, too, uses handshakes as a gesture of greeting. Take comfort, Earthlings, the article suggested: Whatever mysteries might swirl in space’s inky unknown, there is no need to fear. Space people will be just like us.
Handshakes, historically, have often been invoked in that way: as signals of easy equality, as hope for a friction-free world. Their mathematical simplicity—hand to hand, flesh to flesh—implies the dissolution of the differences that might otherwise separate one person from another. In practice, however, the gestures have been much more fraught. And today, as a global pandemic brings a new round of anxious questions about what it means to be a denizen of Earth, the handshake has finally shed its old idealisms. “I don’t think we should ever shake hands ever again, to be honest with you,” Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said last month, explaining how efficiently handshakes can spread illness. In April, Gregory Poland, an infectious-disease expert at the Mayo Clinic, captured the new wisdom like this: “When you extend your hand, you’re extending a bioweapon.”
This moment, then, may well bring with it the end of handshakes. If so: Good riddance. It is high time for them to go—and not only because their new risks far outweigh their old rewards. The gestures, like the image of cheerful “space people” emerging from their saucers to say hi with humanoid hands, have been their own versions of wishful thinking. But handshakes were never as egalitarian as people wanted them to be.
Twenty-nine seconds. That’s how long the handshake between President Donald Trump and President Emmanuel Macron lasted. In July 2017, the two world leaders, along with their wives, had been walking down the Champs-Élysées as part of a military parade celebrating both Bastille Day and the centennial of the United States’ entry into World War I. During a pause in the music, the men grasped hands. Neither would let go. The ongoing grip became a news story. Fox News reported that “Presidents Trump and Macron Shook Hands for a Really Long Time.” CNN’s Chris Cillizza offered a second-by-second analysis of the shake that refused to be shaken. The Independent recruited several body-language experts to analyze the presidents’ performative glad-handing.
This was the second time that Trump and Macron had locked their hands and their wits via a preposterously aggressive handshake. It was also one of many, many times that the current American president attempted to treat the handshake as a power play in miniature. (“A History of President Trump’s Awkward Handshakes” was published in Time magazine just four months into his presidency.) In one way, Trump’s approach to flesh-pressing echoes traditions established by previous presidents. William McKinley—who would be killed, eventually, by a gun that was hidden in the sleeve of an assassin who seemed to be offering a handshake—was famous for the “McKinley grip,” a grasp so efficient that it allowed him to meet the palms of as many as 50 people a minute. Teddy Roosevelt once shook the hands of 8,513 people in a single day. (And then, according to his biographer, Edmund Morris, he “went upstairs and privately, disgustedly, scrubbed himself clean.”) Even in an age of mass media and digital outreach, U.S. presidents are estimated to shake hands with some 65,000 people a year.
Typically, those handshakes suggest retail politics in action—leaders’ desire to connect with their constituents. But as the unorthodoxy of the Trump presidency has collided with the crisis of a global pandemic, handshakes have tended to suggest something else: defiance. “I love the people of this country, and you can’t be a politician and not shake hands,” Trump said at a Fox News town hall in early March, as the coronavirus was spreading both globally and in the U.S. “And I’ll be shaking hands with people—and they want to say hello and hug you and kiss you—I don’t care.” (This was, notably, a reversal of the reportedly germophobic president’s earlier stance: “I am not a big fan of the handshake,” Trump said in 1999. “I think it’s barbaric ... Shaking hands, you catch colds, you catch the flu, you catch it, you catch all sorts of things. Who knows what you don’t catch?”) Mike Pence initially echoed Trump’s contrarianism. “As the president has said, in our line of work, you shake hands when someone wants to shake your hand, and I expect the president will continue to do that, I’ll continue to do it,” the vice president declared at a coronavirus-task-force briefing on March 10.
He has since changed course, as has Trump. But their initial reluctance was revealing. The president and vice president were treating handshakes as both arguments and empty assurances: signals that the pandemic was not as dire as the experts were warning it was. The leaders’ particular definition of liberty would include the freedom to shake hands—even when the hands themselves could pose risks to other people. My colleague James Fallows described a March 13 White House press conference like this:
A series of CEOs came to the microphone to describe what their companies were doing to speed testing or help out in other ways. Trump caught the first three or four of them unawares, by shaking their hands as they moved away from the lectern. All seemed startled, as you can see in the video.
Then the other CEOs began to catch on, and a following group of them scuttled away from the microphone before Trump could grab them for a handshake, or held their own hands clenched together, in a protective prayer-style grasp.
This was classic Trump: oblivious, insistent, alarming. The ensnarement of others in his grip, during an event about the risks of human touch, was another instance of President Trump’s Awkward Handshakes—except that the awkwardness in this case was a direct harbinger of danger to come. But the awkwardness was Trumpian in another way, too: Here was the American president taking a gesture of alleged equality and turning it into a ratification of his own power. Here was Donald Trump, once again, making himself unavoidable.
The handshake, thus deployed, was one more way that Trump’s presidency has been a deviation. Historically, after all, handshakes do seem to have been symbols of equality between the two parties who engaged in them. One of the earliest known depictions of a handshake—from the ninth century B.C.—shows King Shalmaneser III of Assyria and King Marduk-Zakir-Shumi I of Babylonia shaking hands in a gesture of apparent concord. References to handshakes are sprinkled throughout The Iliad and The Odyssey, usually as displays of two-way trust. Many gravestones in ancient Greece depicted handshakes between the deceased person and a member of their family, suggesting both a final farewell and a continuity between the living and the dead. “The gesture was performed by two people in a dialogical composition,” one report notes, “which clearly showed their mutual relationship.” In sculptures of Western antiquity, mortals and gods sometimes commune through handshakes, as if the meeting of hands might nullify the distance between them.
Some historians also speculate that the “shake” element of the handshake was an outgrowth of the signaling of good faith: The up-and-down motion, the thinking goes, would dislodge any weapons that might have been hidden up a sleeve. The default of the right hand being offered by each party fits that speculation. That hand, Harper’s Weekly observed in 1870, is “the hand alike of offense and defense.” The offering of it to the other party, the magazine suggested, was meant “to show that the hand was empty, and that neither war nor treachery was intended.”
That symbolism extended into colonial-American times. The historian Michael Zuckerman has written that the Quakers, resenting every “courtly gesture of subordination,” opted instead for the “practice of the handshake, extended to everyone regardless of station.” The move, the writer Ed Simon notes, “offered a fusion of democracy and the divine, the aristocratic bow replaced with the egalitarian handshake.”
Today, though, that egalitarianism is often an illusion. Handshakes, for one thing, are a Western norm that has been adopted more broadly because of American influence on international business and global culture. And while the gestures might symbolize mutual respect, they are also sites of individual judgment. Do a quick internet search and you’ll find a host of urgently toned articles telling readers how to avoid making a poor first impression with a handshake that is too weak or not weak enough or too eager or not eager enough or, worst of all, clammy. (How does one prevent the unfortunate possession of a clammy hand? The articles typically leave that question unanswered.) Harper’s Weekly, as it considered the origins of the handshake in 1870, also observed that handshakes can be particularly fraught for women, and cautioned them against vigorous hand-shaking. “It is for them to receive homage, not to give it,” the magazine mused.
Three years ago, a Reddit user asked a question: “Why is a ‘limp’ handshake considered bad?” This was the top-voted answer:
A handshake between men is a nonverbal conversation. If they match my grip, I see them as an equal. If they’re limp, I see them more as a pussy. If they try to crush my hand, then I see them as an asshat. With women, I match their grip but if they do the whole knuckles up, limp grip and wrist, then I immediately think that they may be uppity.
The poster added, gallantly: “Granted, I try to reserve judgement.”
And so: The Handshake, If it goes, will not be missed. There are so many better options—gestures that are not only safer, from a germ-spreading point of view, but also more fully egalitarian. We have already seen some of them on full display. As the coronavirus spread, cricket teams in Britain opted for fist bumps instead of handshakes before their games. In the Scottish Premier League, teams simply forwent the traditional pre-match handshake, to no detrimental effect.
Leaders, too, are modeling alternatives. The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been bowing to fellow leaders in lieu of a handshake. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization, tweeted that he was “opting for hand-on-heart instead of hand shakes” as a greeting. Even Mike Pence has replaced the handshake; he was recently recorded extending an elbow, for a friendly bump, instead of a hand. Jerome Adams, the U.S. surgeon general, has modeled the elbow bump as well.
The American Lung Association shared a video that offered five alternatives to the handshake: the elbow bump, the foot tap, the head nod, the yoga bow, and the wave. The “Wuhan shake”—bumping shoes, rather than shaking hands—has gone viral. So have other tongue-in-cheek alternatives to hand-shaking. On his show in early March, Stephen Colbert suggested “the selfie” (in which you shake hands with yourself) and “the intern” (in which you outsource the hand-shaking to someone else). The satirical magazine Broadway Beat (“Fake Broadway News for Real Broadway Newsies”) recently suggested that the best replacement for a handshake is jazz hands. “If we have any hope of saving the world from this crippling disease,” the magazine wrote, “by God, it is with sassy, interpretative movement.”
Handshakes—along with so many other arbitrary norms—have fallen out of favor before. In the 1920s, after the influenza epidemic that killed millions of people around the world, the American Journal of Nursing began warning that hands could function as vectors of bacterial transfer. It recommended that Americans adapt the Chinese custom at the time: to shake one’s own hands together as a gesture of friendship and trust. Following an epidemic of yellow fever in Philadelphia in the late 1800s, the publisher Mathew Carey noted, “The old custom of shaking hands fell into such general disuse, that many shrank back with affright at even the offer of the hand.” In the 15th century, the bubonic plague led Britain’s King Henry VI to ban the custom of kissing on the cheeks as a mode of greeting. The historian Thucydides, writing of a plague in Athens, observed how efficiently disease could compel people to change behaviors that had been honed into habits. “As the disaster deepened,” he wrote, “men became utterly careless of everything, whether sacred or profane.”
This, too, is a moment of rethinking, of reconsidering, of recalibrating. The coronavirus pandemic, Quartz recently reported, has led the Emily Post Institute to amend its long-standing position on the politeness of handshakes. Do something else, the etiquette experts now recommend. Myka Meier, the author of Modern Etiquette Made Easy, suggests that until a commonly accepted form of greeting comes along to replace the wordless handshake, people can use another tool in the etiquette arsenal: their voice. “If someone reaches out to shake your hand, either socially or in business, you can simply say, ‘I’m going handshake-free to be extra careful,’” she told the New York Post. “It shows thoughtfulness for other people’s health and well-being.”
That is the basis of etiquette: respect for the other. Prioritizing other people’s well-being above one’s own. The handshake no longer fits that ethos. The gesture that once evoked the shaking-loose of weapons no longer makes sense when the human hand itself can double as a “bioweapon.” The greeting that suggested egalitarianism no longer works in an environment of such deeply uneven risk. If the handshake dies, historians of the future might mark its date of death as the spring of 2020—when the American president treated the gesture as a tool of defiance, and when many others, summoning a world’s worth of wisdom, proved how easily the handshake could be replaced by other greetings. Handshakes are not—apologies to the “space people” of the American 1950s—universal. They are not inevitable. Power grabs, low-grade and literal: Goodbye to all that.