When Keeping Your Distance Is the Best Way to Show You Care

The norms of politeness and affection get inverted during an epidemic.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte (right) gives Dutch Minister for Medical Care Bruno Bruins an elbow greeting in order to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus in The Netherlands on March 10. (Remko De Waal / ANP / AFP / Getty)

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.

When I spoke to Tootell on Monday afternoon, he had just come from a lunch meeting with someone he’d known for more than a decade. Before they parted, “naturally, we went in for the hug,” he said, “and then we remembered.” They froze, backtracked, and said goodbye from what they both considered to be a safer distance. In the moments after he and his lunch partner had backed away mid-hug, Tootell said, it felt like their meeting hadn’t properly ended. For Tootell (and many people), a handshake or a brief hug helps signify that a social occasion has begun, then at the end, “you shake hands again—like, Thank you for your time!—and that closes out the interaction.” Ending lunch without a parting hug, Tootell said, “felt like we didn’t close the loop.”

Still, Tootell said, at this particular moment in the United States, saying hello or goodbye in a fashion that feels weird or out of rhythm—or leaves one party “hanging,” so to speak—doesn’t have the same repercussions that it might in less wary times. “If I had an Italian company [visiting] and Americans still didn’t know anything about coronavirus, and someone from that company was like, ‘I’m not going to shake anyone’s hand,’ we’d be like, Wait a minute. They’re just not going to shake hands?” Tootell said. But because both awareness and anxiety about the virus are running high in the United States, he said, it’s much more likely that all parties involved will recognize the efforts to avoid skin-to-skin contact in public settings not as alienating “negs” but as public-health measures meant to help slow the spread of disease.

Interpersonal touch is, of course, beneficial to humans’ overall health. As Tiffany Field, the founder of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami, told me in June of 2018, any pressure or movement on the skin helps increase the activity of the vagus nerve, which connects to every major organ in the human body. So touch from another human, she told me then, “slows down the heart. It goes to the GI tract and helps digestion. It helps our emotional expressions—our facial expressions and our vocal expressions. It enhances serotonin, the natural antidepressant in our system.” That vagal activity can also lower a body’s levels of the stress hormone cortisol; cortisol is known to harm the “natural killer cells” that can fight viral, bacterial, and cancer cells. When I spoke to Field again this week, she pointed out that right now, when people are especially stressed over potentially catching or spreading a virus, it’s a bit of a shame that they can’t hug or shake hands as usual.

That said, Field isn’t particularly worried about these particular COVID-19 precautions causing severe touch deprivation. The quarantining of individuals, she said, might lead to more touch deprivation than the disappearance of hugs or handshakes from daily life. But even in quarantine, she noted, stretching, exercise, and massage (among people quarantined together or administered to oneself) can provide some of the same benefits as interpersonal touch. “Simply stretching on the floor—because you’re moving the skin and increasing the stimulation to the pressure receptors, that leads to that whole chain of events reducing the stress hormones,” she said. “You can walk fast inside of whatever space you’re in, because that stimulates the pressure receptors in your feet.” Even hand-washing, she added—something people are being advised to do more often and more vigorously than usual these days—can provide opportunities for people to get their skin moving and give themselves a brief muscle massage.

Plus, Field said, people seem to be finding moments of joy and amusement in their new shared awkwardness at hellos and goodbyes. She’s seen pairs of people forgo the handshake and then jovially work toward mastering the more epidemic-friendly “elbow bump,” and she’s seen people laugh at themselves as they try to pull off the foot-tap or “foot-shake” greeting that’s been steadily gaining popularity during the COVID-19 outbreak. (Similarly, at a church service I attended in Minnesota this past weekend, two congregants greeted each other merrily with an air five.) Joy, she reasoned, can itself have physiological benefits in high-stress times—and Field has noticed that when a quick hello involves an unfamiliar gesture like an elbow bump instead of a quick, muscle-memory hug or handshake, it often becomes a more prolonged, engaged moment of human interaction.

“It looks like people are enjoying it. They smile and laugh after they do it,” Field said. Perhaps that’s because the choreography of the unfamiliar greeting still feels foreign and silly, she added. But in a time when every handshake or hug is a health risk, perhaps people have also begun to see new, less dermally intimate gestures like these as signals of real care.