When I was a young woman, starting out in business in London in the late 1980s, we were taught to perfect the business handshake so we would be regarded as equal to the male professionals we dealt with.
After all, as one of “Thatcher’s children,” as my generation was known, we believed women could “have it all,” whether that be career, family or both.
We were advised that our handshakes should be firm and confident not too ladylike or too aggressive - and certainly not wet and floppy, like a dead fish. Of course, today with the threat of infection from COVID-19, the handshake - at least for now - is a tradition of the past.
My husband, who spent his whole career automatically shaking hands both in business and with pretty much everyone he meets, says he finds it extremely strange and awkward to say hello to someone these days and to consciously and obviously not shake hands.
His 1960s and ‘70s upbringing taught him that shaking hands was a way to build quick rapport, develop a bond and seal a deal. All the quick-moving changes in the world around us today make me wonder what else we are losing to minimize the risk of infection - social cues, human connection, the implied trust of that hand-to-hand contact, and no doubt a lot more.
So how did the handshake become a tradition? Archaeologists have found evidence that the gesture dates back thousands of years.
It is believed that it began as a gesture of peace and trust: grasping hands proved you were not holding a weapon - and shaking them was a way to ensure your partner had nothing hiding up their sleeve. Many ancient civilizations seemed to use the clasping of hands as a way of showing a bond, trustworthiness, sincerity and friendship, or at least a lack of animosity.
In much of the world, a quick kiss on the cheeks is an established greeting - the French call this “la bise.” The word may have originated with the Romans, who had different term for each type of kiss and called the polite version “basium.” People in Southern Europe, Latin America, Egypt and the Philippines traditionally kiss each other on the cheek. Like shaking hands, this has fallen by the wayside during the pandemic as both gestures signify that the other person is trusted enough to share germs with. For many centuries, especially from the time of the bubonic plague in the 14th century, a bow, curtsy or removal of a gentleman's hat offered not only a germ-free greeting but also a show of respect to the fairer sex or to people seen as above one’s own station in life.
In America, it’s likely that the handshake really took off because 18th century Quakers used it as a democratic form of greeting. Some famous handshakes that indicate the importance of “sealing of the deal” via touch include:
• Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee’s end of the Civil War in 1865.
• Harry Truman, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin’s agreement at the end of the World War II in 1945.
• Ironically the handshake between President Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley in 1970 as they agreed to unite in the war against drugs. There are literally thousands of articles, self-help books, business books and websites that will instruct you on how to give a great handshake.
These are full of interesting little snippets, such as “go for their web zone” between thumb and forefinger, “grip firmly, not a dead fish but not a death grip either,” or “make eye contact while shaking.”
Many politicians seem to have really mastered the art, along with elaborate variations, such as the two-hand elbow grab, and the pull-towards-me move.
Both Bill Clinton and Donald Trump immediately come to mind with their full library of handshake moves.
Even before Coronavirus changed our lives, the fist bump and the elbow bump were becoming popular as a more hygienic alternative to the handshake.
The traditional Japanese bowing to each other as a mark of respect is another option open to us when the 6-foot social distancing is behind us and we start to meet in person again.
As for the celebrity- style hug and air-kissing, I personally can’t see that returning until we have a cure and vaccine for COVID-19 - and possibly beyond that.
There is a lot more information at history.com.
I will leave you with a great quote this week that underscores the underlying bond that handshakes provide.
Helen Keller, the famous author who succeeded in spite of being both deaf and blind, said, “I can feel the twinkle of his eye in his handshake.”
God bless America. Stay safe, stay well and stay positive.