Does Covid-19 mark end of hand­shake?

Pretoria News - - FRONT PAGE - ERIKA HUGHES Ideen | Hughes is aca­demic lead in per­for­mance, Univer­sity of Portsmouth.

“PLEASE re­frain from hand shak­ing,” read a sign at an event in Lon­don I re­cently at­tended. De­spite in­creas­ing anx­i­ety about coro­n­avirus (Covid19), for many of us, it was the first time we had en­coun­tered such a re­quest.

Re­frain­ing from such a com­mon be­hav­iour was eas­ier said than done. Hand­shak­ing comes au­to­mat­i­cally to many of us. The art of a proper hand­shake was drummed into me at a young age when grow­ing up in the US.

When I was around 10 years old, my fa­ther would re­hearse my hand­shake with me: “Make eye con­tact first. You don’t want to shake hands like a dead fish.” So I gripped his hand as firmly as I could, my lit­tle wrist and fin­gers strain­ing with pres­sure, my eyes locked on his.

Since then, I’ve be­come fas­ci­nated with the chore­og­ra­phy of the hand­shake: steady eye con­tact, slight head nod in ac­knowl­edge­ment, slight step for­ward, ex­ten­sion of the right hand in one fluid move­ment be­fore grasp­ing your part­ner’s hand with just the right amount of pres­sure.

The hand­shake has long been un­der­stood as a ges­ture that es­tab­lishes a pos­i­tive connection be­tween two peo­ple. It’s one of the first ges­tures men­tioned in Henry Sid­dons’s 1807 Prac­ti­cal Il­lus­tra­tions of Rhetor­i­cal Ges­ture and Ac­tion, a man­ual of ges­tures de­signed for English ac­tors that was an adap­ta­tion of a clas­sic ear­lier text, zu Einer Mimik, by Jo­hann Ja­cob En­gel.

Sid­dons de­fines the hand­shake, an ac­tion that “joins two ex­trem­i­ties of the hu­man body to each other”, as: An ex­pres­sion usual in friend­ship, benev­o­lence, and salu­ta­tion. This ges­ture is rich in sig­ni­fi­ca­tion, for the hand is the tongue of hearty good­will.

But what do we do when the for­merly benev­o­lent hand­shake be­comes po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous?

An­gela Merkel’s In­te­rior Min­is­ter Horst See­hofer re­cently re­buffed the Ger­man chan­cel­lor’s ex­tended hand, while Ital­ians are try­ing out new rules of so­cial en­gage­ment that rep­re­sent a dras­tic de­par­ture from their high-con­tact nor­mal so­cial ges­tures of kiss­ing and em­brace.

Does this all spell the begin­ning of the end of hand­shak­ing?

I won­dered about this as I walked into a con­fer­ence room at the afore­men­tioned hand­shake-free event where I was to teach an im­pro­vi­sa­tion work­shop for drama teach­ers, many of whom had con­sid­er­able act­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. I had planned to lead sev­eral ex­er­cises that in­volved touch, in­clud­ing one where the par­tic­i­pants sup­port the weight of one another’s bod­ies as a means to un­der­stand their re­la­tion­ship as a group. Another be­gan with a se­ries of hand­shakes.

Be­fore we be­gan, I de­cided to ask par­tic­i­pants whether they felt com­fort­able touch­ing one another. Most didn’t mind – but some did, so I adapted the work­shop to re­move all di­rect con­tact that might join the hu­man body to­gether. I asked par­tic­i­pants to work in groups as orig­i­nally planned, but mime the hand­shake (and other such ges­tures) with a gap be­tween their bod­ies.

The re­moval of touch had a pal­pa­ble im­pact on the work­shop, as par­tic­i­pants strug­gled to main­tain the gap and re­sist the im­pulse to touch one another. Re­plac­ing the hand­shake with a rep­re­sen­ta­tion in­creased the group’s aware­ness of the learned im­pulse to per­form col­le­gial­ity with one another. Peo­ple kept apol­o­gis­ing for not touch­ing one another.

The coro­n­avirus out­break is caus­ing peo­ple to re­think the hand­shake and seek other ges­tures that per­form sim­i­lar func­tions with­out touch. The news site In­dia To­day has ad­vo­cated the re­place­ment of the (Western) hand­shake and cheek kiss in favour of a re­turn to the tra­di­tional na­maste greet­ing: a slight bow with hands pressed to­gether.

This global health cri­sis calls into ques­tion the role of touch in cul­tur­ally spe­cific ges­tures of greet­ing and ex­pres­sions of connection.

A global re­sponse might re­sult in mov­ing to­ward new per­formed ges­tures that re­de­fine how we in­ter­act with one another. | The Con­ver­sa­tion

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