Is it time to kill off the handshake?
This go-to gesture of peace and accord, used to cinch deals, bless the start of high-level meetings, and congratulate victors, has been a mainstay of the Western world for well over 2,000 years. It’s survived its share of plagues, pandemics, and double-crossers over the years.
But since the start of the COVID pandemic, social scientists, public health officials and columnists in the United States and Europe alike have been openly asking the question: In the age of COVID, is it time we did away with the old fist-pump, the poignée di main? Last summer, French journalist David Abiker declared, “The handshake is dead.”
In April 2020, Dr. Anthony Fauci, a top pandemic adviser to the Trump and Biden administrations, went even further, likening the handshake to a silent killer. “I don’t think we should ever shake hands ever again, to be honest with you,” he told an interviewer in a Wall Street Journal podcast. “Not only would it be good to prevent coronavirus disease—it probably would decrease instances of influenza dramatically in this country.”
The to-shake-on-it-or-not argument may have seemed a bit theoretical with so many of us working from home over the past two years. But the question takes on new urgency now that Omicron infections are on the wane across much of the developed world, and company after company—from Goldman Sachs to BNY Mellon to small private companies—are informing staff that a return to the office is imminent.
It might be too early to say we’re moving into the end-demic stage of COVID, but it would not be outlandish in any way to suggest there will be more human interaction—whether in the office, in the auditorium of a business conference, or on a transatlantic flight—for most of us in the coming months.
And so it’s high time to pose the question: As we shake off our collective isolation, how will we greet our colleagues, business partners, and fellow conventioneers after al this time? Will physical gestures such as hugs, handshakes, and high fives return to our repertoire of greetings? Or will more socially distanced salutations prevail—the knuckle-to-knuckle fist bump, say, or the humble head nod?
A shake with that?
With that in mind, Fortune asked the polling specialists at Ipsos to present that question to its survey panelists at two points in the past year: last June, at the start of a YOLO summer that never quite materialized, and again last month as Omicron infection numbers were still peaking in most countries.
Ipsos found that, across the six countries it polled—France, Germany, Italy, the U.S., Britain, and Australia—a sense of caution predominates. That is, a majority of respondents said they plan to greet others—in both work and social settings—with socially distanced gestures. Out are handshakes, hugs, and kisses on the cheek (a bedrock of southern European cultural mores). In are the modest hand wave, smile, head nod, and fist bump.
For now, at least.
In the U.S., for example, 51% of Ipsos survey respondents said they used to routinely shake hands with others in pre-COVID days. By June 2021, just one-quarter said they’d been sticking with the outstretched hand. That number fell again last month, with a mere 18% saying they prefer the handshake as the go-to gesture these days.
“There is definitely a behavioral shift between the prior-COVID [position of respondents], and the current situation,” says Andrei Postoaca, CEO of Ipsos Digital. “You had a lot more shake hands, a lot more hugs, and that almost disappeared. Even the high fives are decreasing, and then you have a big jump in fist bumps.”
That’s evident in the following chart, showing that touchy-feely gestures are the ones slipping from our repertoire of social interactions.
But dig deeper into the data, and you start to see signs that respondents are beginning to express a need to go back to their old routines. For example, in the U.K. and Germany, there was a noticeable bounce in the number of respondents who said they plan to return to the tried-and-true “physical” gestures.
Postoaca reckons this is good news for the handshakers out there—the huggers and cheek-kissers, too. His interpretation of the data: that the respondents are saying, “‘Okay, I protected myself. I did the fist bump, but now I am tired of it. I want to go back to shaking hands with people. Although I know it’s a risk, I want this physical touch more.’”
If there is a paradox in the data, it’s this: The ones who are most willing to get close and embrace colleagues, friends, and loved ones are the unvaccinated, Ipsos found. In almost every country, a higher percentage of the unvaccinated respondents said they would prefer to shake hands, hug, deliver a peck on the cheek or a high five when compared to the vaccinated cohort. Here’s that breakdown illustrated in the following chart:
Postoaca found this data somewhat surprising. But the fact that some of us are eager to get back to the mores that defined our interactions shouldn’t be seen as too bizarre.
History favors the handshake
Christian Laes is a classicist and professor of ancient history at the University of Manchester in the U.K. Given what the ancients tell us about pandemics throughout history, he says, human nature has shown itself to be a resilient force.
“During times of pandemics or disease outbreaks, afterwards there’s evidence that things eventually return back to normal,” or something close to it, Laes told Fortune. “The whole idea that we’re not going to shake hands or kiss anyone, I could see a brief hesitation, but these will come back.”
He pointed to historical examples following the 1918–1920 Spanish influenza pandemic which killed tens of millions around the world. Archival footage of the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium, for example, showed competitors and spectators huddled closely together at times, cheering, celebrating, and embracing, he said.
Already, in the early days of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games, we’ve seen similar moments of unbridled affection among rivals. The Chinese hosts of the games have introduced all kinds of anti-COVID measures, but they are largely powerless to stop the spontaneous congratulatory hug.
In the years following the Antwerp Games, life gradually started to return to some level of normalcy across Europe and elsewhere. For example, in the worst years of the Spanish flu, churchgoers donned masks when they approached the priest for Holy Communion. In the 1920s, that secure practice faded, Laes said. Before long, the priest was back to placing the host on parishioners’ tongues.
There are plenty of other examples in the historical record showing humans returning to tried-and-true day-to-day rituals and gestures. The handshake, for one, is a gesture that predates the Christian era. Scholars say the basic intent of extending our right hand to another person was probably to show that we come to this meeting unarmed (or, if armed, we mean no harm).
“I can imagine people being hesitant about whether to shake someone else’s hand, but it will come back,” Laes predicts.
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