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Hands Off: Why We Should Stop Shaking Already

Nicholas A. Christakis sends a clear message in his important new book Apollo’s Arrow: human behavior must continuously evolve, lest we fall prey to calamities like disease. At the risk of oversimplifying a brilliant man’s work, in summary we ought to leverage cumulative culture (“the accumulated wealth of knowledge that belongs to humanity”) and enact new ways to outwit coronaviruses that might otherwise lead to a pandemic like COVID-19. As Christakis stresses, progress is not found in boneheaded corporate reactions like offering your meatpacking crew bonuses to show up onto a jammed assembly line as a virus rages communitywide; nay, it is represented in the thoughtfulness of clever ways to socially distance, making germs less likely to leap from person to person. He writes: “What is needed in order to confront a pandemic is solidarity and a collective will for disease control.” Kindly indulge me: then shouldn’t we be done with the handshake already? Other than meeting the demand for the obligatory “deal!” photo found on nearly every B2B website (in my industry, anyway), is it so important to revert to the ol’ grab n’ pump? I vote no but before deciding, please consider its origins and intended purpose.*

Perhaps the earliest form of the handshake dates to ancient Babylonia whereby a king would grasp the stony hand of chief deity Marduk’s statue in the annual ceremony of re-upping his authority. Grounded in the fear of not wanting to piss off any gods, the gesture survived centuries – finding its way into the works of Michelangelo and Homer – symbolizing the show of good faith in making promises. The extension of an empty, open right hand and subsequent pumping was meant to show a lack of hostility and no weapons up one’s sleeve. In the more recent past, Quakers adopted the custom as a display of equality between parties. In Western society, the handshake became the default way to establish trust and to greet, release, congratulate, celebrate, and thank another… and naturally share festering bacteria. We’re supposed to learn something about the way folks shake hands, mainly from the firmness of their grip. I for one would care a lot less if someone were to offer up a “dead fish” than whether or not they scrub up after skinning fish. Surely there’s a more hygienic way to engage fellow humans.

Change is of course hard. Confession: I’ve shaken seven hands during the pandemic, although zero in the past six months (weird brag). In the first half of the year of living dangerously, I was part of three meetings where guests, um, insisted on flesh pressing. The middle schooler in me – ever fearful of not fitting in – stupidly reared its head… and germy right hand. (Anyone else raised Catholic knows it’s mere muscle memory to not only receive an extended paw but lob an “and also with you” as well.) It dawned on me that this is a form of adult peer pressure. As kids, we shoplifted, lit spray paint behind the garage, and threw balls at moving cars because our friends egged us on and it was a pure rush. (Deny it all you want – we know what you did.) But as supposed grown-ups, sometimes we lack the fortitude to do what’s best because we feel silly being different, standing out, looking as if we’re trying to make a political statement in an otherwise innocuous refusal. Christakis instructs that it’s the glad-handing popular people who are society’s super-spreaders. Time to grow up, evolve, and spare the majority-service economy more crippling retractions. Next we meet, maybe toss me a wave or one of those knowing nods. Let’s leave our germs out of it, ya?


*all credit & glory to Amritya Singh at Socratic Quizmasters for the history lesson

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