Since the arrival of Covid-19, we are have distanced ourselves from one another. Our personal space is now 6 feet and our groups are 10 people or less. We cover our faces and wear latex gloves. We wave at one other from a distance. This could very well kill a ritual that has been with us for a long time. Of course, I’m talking about the handshake.

The origin of the handshake is, at best, murky. One theory is that grasping right hands would show strangers who met that the other person was not going to draw a sword and had peaceful intentions. Plus, the up and down movement of the shake would knock loose anything up their sleeves. An additional theory is that handshakes developed as a symbol indicating a sacred bond. Why that and not a chest bump is anybody’s guess.

For the most part, shaking left hands is simply not done. It’s a holdover from earlier times when eating was done with the right hand and cleaning your backside was done with the left. The left hand was also associated with the devil and things evil. The word sinister is Latin for left. Shaking someone’s left would curse them. An odd, but notable, exception Is both genders of the Scouts and Explorers organizations. They use it as a formal greeting since the left hand is the closest to
the heart.

When I said that the handshake has been around a long time, I mean a very long time. While there is no proof that Neanderthal buddies Oog and Aga pressed the flesh when they met at the neighborhood mammoth barbecue, one of the earliest depictions dates to the ninth century BC. It’s a carving on the throne of Assyrian King Shalmaneser depicting him glad-handing a Babylonian ruler. It wasn’t a greeting. They were sealing an alliance. The Greeks used the handshake as a symbol on gravestones. The Romans put it
on coins.

The handshake used as a greeting is a more recent version. Quakers in the 17th century are often cited as starting the practice because it was less elitist than bowing or hat flourishes.  It has become an almost universal gesture used for greeting, parting, congratulations, gratitude, or a sign of good sportsmanship. I say almost because in the Middle East shaking hands is considered extremely rude.

Many groups use secret handshakes to recognize group members. A secret handshake is used by Fraternal organizations like the Masons, the Elks or the Shriners. Groups as wide ranging as the aforementioned Scouts and Explorers, the military, street gangs, neighborhoods and groups of friends make use of secret handshakes as well.

So, in the age of Covid-19, where do we go from here? We may eventually get back to shaking hands, but what do we do in the meantime? Some have suggested touching elbows (awkward at best) or tapping the sides of feet (extremely awkward at best). The fist bump is better, but still involves physical contact. We could try the Star Trek Vulcan salute but not everyone can do it. Do we go back to bowing? Do we just settle for a wave? 

This isn’t something that will be settled soon. There will be many awkward moments as people try to sort the dilemma out.  The handshake is so ingrained in our culture that establishing a replacement is a challenge worthy of worthy of Hercules. I would like to offer my suggestion. Being a fan of Big Bang Theory, I would suggest a jaunty up-tilt of the chin and a friendly “sup.”