I have always admired the handshake from afar. Why afar, you might ask? I will get to that, but for now, think about the meaning of the handshake through history. It has always been a mark of goodwill. I researched its origins, and according to Deep English.com, the genesis goes back to ancient Greece in the fifth century B.C. where people practiced this ritual as a sign of peace. The Romans and the knights of Medieval Europe also used a form of this gesture, but unlike the Greeks, the purpose was for the detection of hidden weapons.
The Various Meanings of the Handshake
As time went on, we know many handshakes indicated an agreement of sorts. When Ulysses S. Grant graciously allowed Robert E. Lee to concede in the Civil War, purportedly, it was with the handshake as the final say as depicted in many paintings of this historical moment. In more recent times, the handshake symbolized a binding agreement between two people until the world became excessively litigious. Nowadays, few people would accept a handshake as a contract set in stone. Nothing less than a legal document with signatures and, at times, a notarization, would finalize the agreement.
Men often see the handshake as a method of communication and compromise. Years ago, a surly cousin of mine misinterpreted another cousin’s goodwill about doing more for himself. The first cousin became extremely defensive, so my more easy-going cousin said, “No problem,” putting out his hand as a token of cooperation.
My Experiences and Thoughts About the Handshake
Most women use the handshake as a formality. For me, a hug or the touch of a shoulder is my preferred method of acknowledgment with those whom I am close to or see regularly. Until recently, did I still shake people’s hands, yes, when first meeting or other similar instances? Throughout my young adulthood, I did not think twice about it, but during the 1980s, that changed. I happened to be Co-Chair of the Central, Massachusetts NASW Chapter and had to introduce the speaker.
When he came to the podium, the friendly presenter gave me a hearty, hand-crushing handshake. I will never forget it.
My hand ached the rest of the day, and maybe longer. That was the end of taking the handshake for granted.
Eventually, I recovered from that minor but memorable impression and did not think much about the issue of handshaking. Over the last several years, being Catholic, however, I pondered this more closely. I became increasingly uncomfortable touching strangers’ hands. About six or seven years ago, a priest told the parishioners to stop shaking hands due to a nasty flu season. I cannot tell you how elated I was. I began praying, well not quite but at least hoping for the elimination of this custom forever. Unfortunately, that was wishful thinking. Once the season subsided, the practice of handshaking resumed. Since that time, I have tried to avoid it, but when a child reaches out, I feel guilty and shake their little hands. More recently, however, when attending, I have tried to find a pew where I can avoid these close encounters of the…well, any kind. Late last year, I told a little white lie in church, that’s right. When somebody reached their hand out to shake mine, I waved instead. As Mass came to an end, I felt terrible and whispered to the peacemaker that I was just getting over a cold.
Although I am not a germaphobe, I am getting older and ever so often wonder where those churchgoers’ “friendly hands might have been or not.” Immediately, I stop my imagination from wandering. Instead, early this year, I ceased all handshaking and used the peace sign or a chipper wave as a replacement for this harmonious ritual. Before COVID, some might have questioned if I was tactile-defensive or just a “cold fish.” On the contrary, anyone who knows me is well aware that I love hugs. As I move my psychotherapy practice from eastern to central Massachusetts, most of my clients who are following me through teletherapy indicated they would miss the live hug. Occasionally, some will drive to my new office, but when they cannot, they will settle for a virtual embrace.
What Will Become of the Handshake?
I believe once Church attendance resumes that many people will be reluctant to shake another’s hand. I am curious to see if the population at large will consider suspending it all together and resort to the fist bump, which seems to be on the rise. How about the elbow bump? Can you see that in a church setting? Kumbaya? I don’t know because there is much uncertainty about what the lay of the land will look like in general. What I do know is that “old habits die hard,” such as handwashing or not.” As a result, I will be most cautious about resurrecting the handshake anytime soon.
What About You?
What do you think about the handshake? Will your resume without hesitation? Do you think it may become extinct in place of something else?