Throughout most of his career in commercial real estate, Jonathan Tootell has been in the habit of greeting his clients and colleagues with a handshake. Last week, however, he noticed that some of his on-the-job interactions were beginning with hesitation, a tentative Are we doing this or not? If all parties were okay with it, he told me, then everyone involved would shake hands. If not, they refrained, which felt a little odd, he said—like a subtle snub.
By the start of this week, though, Tootell said, it had started to go without saying that handshaking would not happen. SquareFoot, the commercial-real-estate firm where Tootell oversees the New York brokerage team, had not outright banned shaking hands or hugging on the job. But Tootell’s colleagues and business contacts all seemed to intuit that just waving was a better way to say hello—even at close range, no matter how silly it felt.
The rules of politeness get inverted during an epidemic: Gestures involving touch, usually understood to convey affection or warmth, get replaced by distance—which, in its own way, conveys care. All over the globe, authorities are encouraging citizens to avoid nonessential close personal contact because coronaviruses of all kinds can be easily spread through skin-to-skin touching. As a result, kisses hello have been temporarily discouraged in countries where they’re traditional; companies worldwide are discouraging and even banning handshakes between associates; places of worship are temporarily modifying traditions that involve interpersonal touching or the use of communal objects. The spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and the resulting cutback on physical contact with others have certainly helped illustrate why those gestures and touches are so important—but new and creative methods of greeting and parting have sprung up accordingly.