Paul Batura: Will coronavirus make handshaking go extinct after thousands of years? Trump and others wonder

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People have been shaking hands for about 7,000 years, historians tell us. But the ancient greeting could become a casualty of the coronavirus pandemic, as President Trump pointed out Saturday.

At a White House news conference discussing the federal response to the coronavirus, a reporter asked the president if he was “sending mixed messages” by continuing to shake hands with people while he and others have urged Americans to end the custom as a defense against the spread of the highly infectious virus.

Trump acknowledged the tradition “almost becomes habit” and called it a “natural reflex.” He said he was never a fan of the practice prior to his entrance into politics and then conceded it might be best for the handshake to be abandoned – at least for now.


“Getting away from shaking hands is a good thing,” the president said. “Maybe people shouldn’t be shaking hands for the long-term because it does transmit flu and other things.”

The ancient origin of the handshake is somewhat murky, but it’s generally believed to have begun as a gesture of peace – in contrast to a clenched fist or a concealed hand that could carry a weapon.

The shaking motion is a practical way of ensuring the other person doesn’t have a weapon up his sleeve.

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As a parent, I’ve spent the last decade encouraging our sons to give firm handshakes. “No wet fish type of shake!” as my dad regularly admonished me.

Is all that training now for naught?

I’m a fan of tradition, but I do have to admit that it makes good sense to do whatever we can to slow the spread of dangerous germs, even if that means suspending or giving up a custom thousands of years old.

But it’s got me thinking about what’s really at the heart of the handshake in modern times and why it’s critical that we don’t just forget it, but find an alternative to it.

The old 1980’s TV sitcom “Cheers” is a favorite show of mine – not because I’m a fan of bars or booze, but because I’ve always loved programs with rich banter between characters, especially among friends or even rivals.

As fellow fans will recall, the award-winning show takes place in a Boston bar. The show’s opening lyrics are simple yet profound: “Making your way in the world today, takes everything you got. Taking a break from all your worries, it sure would help a lot. Wouldn’t you like to get away? Sometimes you want to go – where everybody knows your name.”

The brilliant ensemble cast of that show – Sam, Diane, Rebecca, Carla, Cliff, Norm, Frasier and Woody – all became household names because they embodied what most everybody wants more than anything in the world.

We want to be known – not necessarily famously known – but known and appreciated by our loved ones and friends.

“Social distancing” has become a new buzz phrase, another practical way of trying to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus or whatever communicable ailment the other person may have.

Introverts joke they’ve been practicing this habit for years – but I think they’re bluffing.

Yes, some people are more comfortable in social settings than others, but I think everyone’s heart craves relationships – even if how we manifest that need may sometimes look different.

So what might replace shaking hands in this new era?

My oldest son tells me he and his friends have resorted to exchanging “the elbow of good health.”  My friend Peb Jackson now shakes forearms, grabbing your sleeve rather than your hand.

Fist-bumping, saluting, even bowing or simply smiling more are decent alternatives. At least all of those options acknowledge the other person.

Or maybe young people addicted to their cellphones can just whip out the phones and have a photo of a handshake appear on-screen to show the person they are greeting – from a safe distance of at least six feet away, of course.

Still, there are benefits to the handshake that we will lose if the old habit dies. Pressing flesh is a quick way of being known, especially since it almost always involves eye contact and an exchange of pleasantries.

But there are many ways to connect – and showing more interest in another person is perhaps the best way of all.

In times of turmoil, my mom always liked to say with a sigh, “This, too, shall pass.” And the coronavirus will, as well. I suspect the handshake will eventually return once the coronavirus disappears.

But in the interim, instead of serving up the usual small talk about the weather or other trivial matters, show a willingness to be interested in the other person’s welfare.

Don’t just ask “how are you” – a question that usually elicits a banal reply like “I’m fine.” Ask the people you are greeting what they’re thinking about these days, what they’re looking forward to – even what their big dream might be.

After all, unless the fear of infectious disease forces us apart, human beings are social creatures and we cherish our relationships with family, friends and colleagues. We are not lone wolves who stalk about with minimal interactions with each other. This is why so many prisoners kept in solitary confinement for long periods see their mental health suffer.

Forced to endure self-quarantining to protect others from getting sick, people infected with the coronavirus or suspected of being infected will no doubt welcome returning to normal interactions with others once they are infection-free.


So in these times when we are told social distancing is needed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, it’s more important than ever to pick up a phone, send an email, or write a note or card to others.

Distancing ourselves physically from each other and refraining from handshaking shouldn’t stop us from having relationships.

Show interest in people by being interested in what interests them. There’s an old story in the first book of the Bible about a very bad thing happening to an innocent man. In response, he replies: “You intended to harm me, God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives."


Similarly, let’s all do our part to see that the onset of the coronavirus and the halt of the handshake – whether temporary or permanent – ironically ushers in a new era of renewed personal connectedness.

Can we elbow-bump on that?