Does Covid-19 mark end of handshake?
“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