When I signed on as an articled clerk with a law firm called Rose & Jensen, way back in 1991, the deal was sealed with a handshake.
Sure, there were formalities – articled clerks were basically apprentice lawyers, and a lot of things needed to be signed, including a deed – but once I shook Leon Rose’s hand, the deal was done.
That was the way of it in those days, and everyone understood it. My Dad ensured my brother and I knew the importance of the handshake – that if a man shook on an agreement, he stuck to it; and that you looked someone in the eye when you shook hands.
In high school, the headmaster gave a number of addresses in my five years at Ipswich Grammar about the importance of shaking hands – the need for a firm grip, and again looking the other person in the eye. We understood that it was more than just social convention; a person’s word was conveyed with it.
Handshakes have been around since at least the 5th Century BC. It has been speculated that the origin of the custom lies in a gesture to show that a person was unarmed, but there is no way of knowing and that may well be a ‘just so’ story. The importance of the gesture – which is used almost everywhere – cannot be denied.
That is, until now. When we speak of how coronavirus has changed what we do, altered how we work now, that is the biggest change for me. My job has not changed, although some of the tasks have, and of course virtual meetings are the order of the day; but the strangest adjustment for me has been that simple lack of shaking hands.
No agreement seems properly final, no greeting authentic, without that ritual. Meeting new people without shaking hands seems almost an insult, and sealing a deal without it seems disingenuous.
I wonder, will that effect linger? Will business and social relationships commenced via an elbow bump or uncomfortable wave be as strong and viable? Will agreements made without the consecration of the handshake be considered as binding? Maybe people will feel that they haven’t really committed to a promise.
The kicker is that even now that lockdowns are ending and movie theatres, sports stadiums and workplaces are returning to some semblance of normal, there is no sense that the handshake will be rushing back. We know that we cannot eliminate this virus, even should a vaccine become available in line with our most optimistic estimates.
Humans have only ever eliminated one virus, smallpox. That was achieved in a less globally-integrated world, and in an era before the rise of pseudoscience and the anti-vaccination movement; it is doubtful that we will ever eradicate COVID-19, and even if we do there are 750,000 more viruses in animals, any one of which could make the leap to humans and devastate our world again.
The hand-sanitiser dispensers we see in the foyers of every building, the anti-bacterial wipes at the gym and keeping at least 1.5 metres from people in shops and restaurants are all firmly a part of our ‘new normal’. Handshakes, I fear, are not.
It is hard to know what effect the disappearance of a gesture that has been a part of human civilisation for at least 2500 years will have, but it cannot fail to have one. Handshakes at the start of a meeting move it from the introductory phase to the action phase – once everybody has shaken hands, we get down to business; it is a social cue that will be missed.
At the end, handshakes signal that the meeting is over, and that what has been agreed will be done. We’ll need a new set of rules and gestures, a new language really, and what are the chances that we will all settle on the same one? Handshakes got in on the ground floor, as civilisation itself was being invented; consensus now will be hard to achieve.
I lament the loss of the handshake, not just because it might lead to less binding agreements or weaker relationships. Our society has already lost a lot of its collegiality, and modern life isolates us even without a pandemic. The handshake was one of the last relics of a time when we all seemed to be on the same side, and is one of the few things on which we all agreed.
COVID-19 has done worse things – killed people, destroyed industries, dragged nations into conflict – but by eliminating the handshake, it has stolen a part of our humanity. There may come a time when we all lament its demise.