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Changing centuries-old habits isn't easy, but the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing us to reconsider many of our most ingrained habits, such as shaking hands. As more people are wary of spreading germs, handshakes are becoming less of a cultural norm.

Shaking hands was once fundamental to how we interacted with other humans. Will this ritual ever return to its former normalcy, once the threat of the pandemic is over? Or, is it destined to become a thing of the past, that's laughable to future generations for its unhygienic nature?

A Peaceful Gesture Becomes a Threat

While their actual origination is unclear, early depictions of handshakes can be traced all the way back to the 9th century, B.C. The epic poet Homer utilized handshakes to illustrate displays of trust, while for ancient Romans, handshakes represented friendship and loyalty.

One popular theory is that handshakes were invented to convey peaceful intentions. That theory posits that the extending of hands between individuals was to show that neither was holding a weapon. Some suggest that the act of people shaking hands up and down served to shake loose any weapons that were possibly hidden up a sleeve.

Handshakes became a popular and commonplace greeting somewhere around the 17th century. Etiquette guidelines called for handshakes to be firm, but not overly strong. One guide published in 1877 warned that, "a gentleman who rudely presses the hand offered him in salutation, or too violently shakes it, ought never to have an opportunity to repeat his offense."

While the handshake has maintained its prevalence well into the 21st century, the rapid spread of COVID-19 over recent months has turned the age-old gesture into a faux pas. What once represented friendship and good intentions now, for many, represents a dangerous and unnecessary conduit for spreading disease. 

A World Without Handshakes

As Martha Lincoln, medical and cultural anthropologist, explains, the practice of shaking hands is deeply rooted in our psyche. "Handshakes, I think to Americans, feel like "this is what it means to be a member of the public sphere," that we touch each other in this specific way."

Something that is such a core aspect of human sociality is not easily set aside, even with the recognition that handshakes might not be the most hygienic gesture. Hence, the many awkward greetings we've been witnessing lately.

What once represented friendship and good intentions is now a dangerous and unnecessary conduit for disease.

Air-fives and elbow bumps are slowly becoming the new normal, and this isn't the first time that people have replaced everyday rituals. History proves that crises have the ability to bring about major and lasting shifts in our daily lives.

Lincoln points to one such example of a practice that was outlawed during a public health crisis: "The reason that English people do not kiss cheeks to greet each other is because Henry VI banned the cheek kiss in the 14th century, because of (Bubonic) plague."

While cheek-kissing eventually made its way back into European customs, it is now being banned once again due to the spread of COVID-19. In late February, as the pandemic was rapidly spreading across Europe, the French minister of health, Olivier Verén, was pressed by a reporter on whether cheek-to-cheek kisses were safe.

"Henry VI banned the cheek kiss in the 14th century because of (Bubonic) plague."

Martha Lincoln

He replied that the act, known as "la bise", should be banned for now. Also in late February, the World Health Organization recommended avoiding such greetings for self-protection. Will these changes last beyond the pandemic?

Lincoln describes one lasting change society has made to combat the spread of disease: "The way that we buy our food now seems pretty normal to us but we used to get food out of a barrel at the store. With the awareness that someone might have touched your food.... we started seeing individually-wrapped candies and pastries, and we started seeing crackers in boxes."

People recognized that there was a safer alternative, and that the spread of disease is much worse with a lack of attention to hygiene. 

The New Normal

"Even though there's been a great deal of change, those changes get assimilated. We don't associate them with disease any longer and our sense that things are normal is restored... It isn't so much about resetting as it is about understanding the mundane design behind lots of things and asking ourselves if that's really functional moving forward," Lincoln discussed.

"Even though there’s been a great deal of change, these changes get assimilated. We don’t associate them with disease any longer..."

Martha Lincoln

There could be countless new customs already forming due to COVID-19. We're seeing hand washing stations pop up in public parks, plexiglass dividers at grocery stores, and foot-operated doors. When looked at objectively, these new additions seem like practical measures that should logically extend beyond the current pandemic.

While it's impossible to say which changes will stick and which will fade once the fear of COVID-19 transpires, history tells us that people will innovate and adapt when necessary. It's difficult to imagine a world without handshakes, but certainly understandable that we need to consider more hygienic customs to replace them.

It's possible that we've seen the end of handshakes as a primary greeting but, as we've seen, moments of crises can open our minds to new and better ideas.

For more interesting news about the people and ideas that are changing our world, subscribe to Freethink.

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