Business’s coronavirus conundrum: What’s the best alternative to a handshake?

February 13, 2020, 5:49 AM UTC

The handshake supposedly began as far back as 5 B.C., as a gesture to prove to a stranger that you were unarmed and meant no harm. But in the time of the coronavirus outbreak, that sign of good faith can no longer be trusted.

“Singapore Airshow 2020 has adopted a ‘no-contact’ policy and encourages attendees to practice alternative business greetings, instead of the conventional handshake throughout the event,” said Leck Chet Lam, managing director of Experia Events, which organizes the Singapore Airshow—Asia’s largest aerospace and defense expo, convening this week.

The “no-contact” policy follows official guidance from the Singapore government on how to avoid spreading the novel coronavirus, now known as Covid-19, which has so far infected 43 people in the city state. A handshake can transfer the virus from person to person, though that doesn’t necessarily mean either person is infected. The biggest concern is that when the virus lives on a person’s hand, it can more easily contact the eyes or mouth, where infection ultimately takes place

Alternative greetings suggested by the airshow in a video include waving, bowing, or clasping your hands at chest height in the Chinese style—as opposed to the “prayer-hands” style of the Thai wai. Although, presumably, either would suffice.

While the handshake is by no means a universal greeting—even the way a handshake is conducted can vary from culture to culture, or person to person—the gesture has become a staple of the international business community. And inking deals and shaking hands is what the Singapore Airshow is all about.

The handshake has fallen victim to previous public health crises. In 2014, some African countries struck by Ebola reportedly turned their backs on handshakes and hugs. Even the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations at the time eschewed a handshake in favor of a bizarre elbow rub when meeting a World Health Organization official in Liberia. Earlier the same year, a group of U.S. doctors proposed banning handshakes from all health care and, a month later, scientists in Wales advocated for fist bumps over handshakes as a more hygienic greeting.

“If both parties feel like at this moment it’s safer to protect their self and not shake hands then foregoing a handshake won’t be cause for offense,” says Cheris Chan, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Hong Kong. “But if there’s a business delegation from the U.S. coming to Asia, for example, and they’re not aware of the situation, they might feel a little unwelcome.”

Sometimes precautions taken during health scares can have long term effects on society. In Hong Kong, which suffered 299 deaths due to SARS in 2003, paranoia over public hygiene remained high even before the current coronavirus outbreak. Signs next to doors on public buildings, such as malls, inform users that the door handle is sterilized every two hours. Meanwhile on public buses, infographics inform riders on best practices for coughing and sneezing.

“After SARS there was no problem shaking hands, however, and social interactions in general returned to normal shortly after the crisis passed,” Chan says. So, no need to wave goodbye to the handshake just yet but, if you plan to do business in Asia soon, it might be best to brush up on alternatives.

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