In Defense of the Handshake

Some say it’s going away. Here’s why it shouldn’t.

Handshake in The Wolf of Wall Street

Jonah Hill and Leonardo DiCaprio make a deal in The Wolf of Wall Street.

The only thing we seem to know for sure in these uncertain times is that the future is anything but clear. We can't be certain what office life will be like when we return. We don't know how travel is going to work or how long face masks will be standard issue when leaving the house. But people seem to be convinced that one old school gesture is going away—maybe for good.

“I don't think we should ever shake hands ever again, to be honest with you,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said in early April. Dr. Gregory Poland, an infectious-disease expert at the Mayo Clinic, took it a step further, telling the BBC that “when you extend your hand, you're extending a bioweapon.”

It makes sense, of course. Even the cleanest hands can be forensically dirty. We use them for everything from eating to working; they get stuffed into various pockets and push elevator buttons that've been pushed by hundreds of other hands. But I don't think I'm comfortable in a world without handshakes.

There's an inherent trust to a handshake. Extending a hand to a stranger first thing is an easy, disarming way to connect to another person. Juliana Schroeder, a University of California, Berkeley professor who studies psychology and organizational behavior, found that people are more willing to work with those who offer their hands to others at the start of a negotiation, as it signals a motive of trust, cooperation and follow-through.

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Handshake in The Irishman
Handshake in The Irishman

Robert de Niro and Joe Pesci shake in The Irishman.

We're taught as kids that a brief handshake at the end of a game is a sign of good sportsmanship. And as adults, we're reminded that the classic shake is still a classy move—and far easier to nail than more modern options like high fives, fist bumps or bro hugs that are somehow rife with ways to bungle. Despite feeling at home at fashion parties and events, I've never quite mastered la bise,, that French cheek-grazing air kiss that's become standard greeting among a rarefied crowd. But a handshake? Put 'er there!

Of course, there's a subtle art and science to the ritual and plenty of articles on how to avoid making a poor first impression with a weak handshake. And while many people—our current president included—have been accused of bad handshakes, I like that you can convey your confidence with a simple, substantial shake. I've always seen it as egalitarian and fair. Man or woman, rich or poor, we all shake. You shake the hands of your friends and you extend a hand to someone you've never met. When you get the chance to meet one of your heroes, getting to shake their hand is a real treat. Making a deal? You'd better shake on it. When my father passed away, his old colleagues all shook my hand as a way to convey their respect for the man they worked with.

A handshake is intimate. It provides the opportunity—perhaps your only opportunity—to look into a person's eyes while making physical contact with them. It's much warmer than bowing, for sure. Bowing seems too formal, aristocratic or subservient. There's a calm elegance to the way they do it in Japan, but it seems a bit cold and distant for Western culture. The handshake's catchall utility seems ingrained into our way of life.

America's reliance on the handshake was propelled by 18th century Quakers. In their efforts to eschew the hierarchy and social rank, they found the handshake a more democratic form of greeting to the more customary curtsy or hat-doffing. “In their place, friends put the practice of the handshake, extended to everyone regardless of station, as we do still,” writes historian Michael Zuckerman in his study, Authority in Early America.

My last handshake before social-distancing happened to be in a posh London hotel. I was meeting a business contact with whom I'd only emailed. I was looking for a woman because the name was Jamie. He was looking for a woman because he has a sister named Cory. When we finally figured it out and met properly, we laughed while shaking hands with an “all is forgiven” vigor. Any awkwardness was erased as we clasped hands. That's the thing about handshakes, the physicality shakes things up—literally—and allows for a more personal connection to be made.

How would I greet someone today? With a handshake? I doubt it. With one of the silly alternatives being offered? Definitely not. Thankfully, I'm not currently out and about, meeting people. I hope by the time I am, that the handshake will have survived and it'll be like it was never banished. Because after all this social distancing and the constant connection we have to technology, an old fashioned handshake provides a simple shot of humanity. And that's something we all need now more than ever.

The Alternatives

The elbow bop

The elbow bop

The elbow bop

This feels way too casual for business and yet too structured and “designed” for any real friends.

The foot bump

The foot bump

The foot bump

Balancing on one foot, slapping the side of your shoes together in midair? This seems better suited for TikTok.

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