The Handshake: a Eulogy

Coronavirus may have killed the handshake forever.

My grandfather was a carpenter. I remember the first time we shook hands at church when I was very young and his leathery, calloused hands with swollen knuckles engulfed my own.

I learned a lot about him by taking his hand, and by watching him extend it to greet someone. His devotion to craftsmanship, flesh toughened by his firm hold on a hammer over decades of building homes for folks, the tenderness in how he would soften his grip to shake hands with children and the blue-haired church ladies after my grandmother passed away.

There was an intimacy engrained in a handshake — one between people that was culturally acceptable, before now, and allowed you to look someone in the eye while skin-to-skin. This brief touch had always been instructive. Who exudes gravitas. Who projects safety. Who hasn’t worked with their hands. Who concedes insecurity. Who sweats. Who is earnest. Who wants to be taken seriously. Who isn’t serious. Who can look you in the eye.

In business, a handshake was a greeting as much as a way to close a transaction. It used to be legally operative, with a whole body of common law devoted to a gentleman’s agreement sealed with a handshake. It was a way to connect to potential voters. It was a way to forget old bygones. It was a way for a father to give his blessing to his daughter’s suitor. It was a way to say “good game.”

Shaking someone’s hand possessed a certain timelessness of authority and purpose. But it has been abruptly taken from us. On March 14, 2020, President Trump paid tribute to the handshake, seemingly as “Amazing Grace” played in the background, remarking that though he was a “non-hand-shaker,” once he became a politician, he developed a “natural reflex.” But now, Trump, with the biggest presidential hands in history according to the Babylon Bee, has waved goodbye to the handshake, saying, “Maybe people shouldn’t be shaking hands for the long term.” Dr. Anthony Fauci pronounced the handshake gone. “I don’t think we should ever shake hands again,” he has said.

In its sudden passing, we look to history. What was a sign of peace in ancient Greece to concede that neither man was carrying a weapon developed into a more intimate forearm embrace in Rome (S.P.Q.Rmus, amiright?). In the Middle East and Europe in the Dark Ages, the handshake was apparently used to shake out concealed weapons. Similarly, in the Boy Scouts, we shook with our left hands. Legend had it that our founder, Lord Baden-Powell, shook hands with African leaders with his left as a sign of respect, as one would have to lower his shield, typically held in the left hand, to shake. 17th century Quakers have been credited with mainstreaming the handshake, “view[ing] a simple handclasp as a more egalitarian alternative to bowing or tipping a hat.” In modern times, it has been commonplace and expected to extend a hand to men and women to greet one another and to curate trust.

So maybe in its demise and absence, we have a sense of what we have truly lost — an inability to put our guard down. What was once a socially permissive way to touch one another in all settings will now be reserved (at least for the distant present) for those in highly restrictive, disinfected ones. Men and women will no longer be forced to take each other closer than arm’s length.

Just before work from home orders began, I ran into the hiring partner at my former firm in Grand Central. Rather than shake hands, we bumped elbows. Awkwardness aside, it’s almost as if things have been unresolved since. Like welcoming the hello and sealing the goodbye kept the conversation as one between passing ships waving different banners rather than creating a space for conversation and dialogue.

In the handshake’s wake, I know that the CDC-mandated six feet apart will shrink to four, or maybe three, if we’re lucky, over months — maybe years. But as “social distancing” becomes the norm, recent memory of death and spread of disease won’t be easily forgotten.

The handshake may never return, shields and guards remaining up. And in a time where we are being driven apart — politically, socially, and economically — failing to extend a hand and touch one another, as a last remnant of the seal between us, seems like something we will miss.


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