Just like that, traditional gestures of greeting have become taboo. Humans have been shaking hands in one form or another for thousands of years (though the handshake as we know it today was first popularised by Quakers a few hundred years ago). The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has forced all of us to change our behaviour in order to prevent infection, and that means handshakes (along with the beloved European cheek kiss) have been swiftly phased out.
Yet old habits die hard. For example, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced at a press conference in March 2020 that “From this moment on, we stop shaking hands,” before ending the meeting by shaking hands with the health official next to him. It turns out the handshake habit is really hard to shake.
In the United States, Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the lead members of the Trump Administration’s White House Coronavirus Task Force, has suggested (“somewhat seriously”) that we may “never shake hands again”. Indeed, some are already celebrating the death of the handshake as an annoying custom which should have been dispensed with long ago. Professor Herman Roodenburg, a Dutch academic and one of the world’s foremost experts on the history of the handshake, also thinks we should retire the practice.
Ultimately, it really depends how long the pandemic lasts. Steven Pinker, the bestselling author and Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, thinks handshaking is too ingrained in our cultures to be abandoned, and that it will return “in the distant future when the virus is under control”. However, cultures can (and do) change. If the “distant future” is too distant (and if the threat of future pandemics feels very real), then the taboo against shaking hands may stay.
Will we ever shake hands again? Or will traditional gestures of greeting return when the danger of infection has passed? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!