In Defence of the Handshake

by David McGrogan

One of the first characteristics of the ‘new normal’ to appear in early 2020 was the avoidance of the humble handshake. And this has crystallised ever since. Pressing the flesh has now become one of those things, we’re told, like going to the office 9-5 each day, or appearing unmasked on a crowded train, that has been consigned to the dustbin of history. We won’t do that anymore, even if (when?) Covid completely disappears.

Well, don’t believe the hype. The handshake is alive and well and living in Paris – not to mention London, New York, and Stockton-on-Tees. Prohibition never eliminates a practice, as any fool can tell you; it just drives it into the weeds. And handshaking is no different. People are still doing it. And now it has a subversive edge. When somebody offers you their hand these days, it is no longer just the meaningless ritual of yesteryear – it sends some important messages, which are all the more profound for the fact that they are not consciously sent or received. Human communication is not just verbal, but physical, and one only has to think for a second to realise that our physical ways of communicating – kissing, hugging, shaking hands – are often the most significant. What words are there that can surpass a simple hug from a loved one at a time of crisis? Or a first kiss? Or a handshake on the playground after a fight?

The first unconscious message sent by the post-2020 handshake is simply stated: you and your fellow hand-shaker are simpatico. The mask-wearing, the social distancing, the fear-mongering – maybe you’ll go along with it if you must, but deep down inside, you hate it. And with that furtive handshake, both of you now know that you’re in the same club. The wheat has been separated from the chaff.

The second unconscious message is more powerful. It says, in a nutshell: “I know that your hand may be covered in germs. But I will shake it nonetheless.” It is a statement. In taking the proffered hand, you are stepping outside of your safety zone – literally and figuratively – to physically connect with another human being. But you are also taking a risk, however small. This signifies to that person that you are prepared to trust them, and therefore that your relationship and their goodwill really matter to you.

But there is a third, and even more potent signal that is sent by the modern handshake. This one is more difficult to summarise in a simple sentence, but one might describe it as the rejection of a certain tendency in modern society to disdain the body – especially the bodies of other people – and to seek to transcend its apparent inadequacies, crudity, and primitivism.

Even before lockdown, our society had become increasingly verbal and cerebral as the use of the internet came to dominate our lives, and as professional jobs became ever more remote (no pun intended) from physical work. We had already come to privilege the word over mere action. And at the same time, many of us had already grown used to almost literally living inside our own minds, inhabiting an ‘extremely online’ world in which thought and feeling were completely detached (or so it was easy to delude ourselves) from the physical realm. As a consequence, for many people physical social contact had already come to seem almost distasteful. That trend has only accelerated since last March, partly because it now appears to have a justification to support it. Where previously a hatred of physical contact would be something of an embarrassment, deemed misanthropic and precious, it can now be spun into something virtuous. Living unmoored from the nasty, smelly, disease-ridden sphere of other people is a sign that you are in fact a good person. You are stopping the spread.

The post-2020 handshake is a rebellion against this tendency. It relocates us in the world, and particularly the world of others. It says that there is something in our nature as social animals that values the physical presence of people – not just their words on a screen, abstracted chatter, but their totality. Warts, germs, and all. We are not simply our minds, shackled to a hunk of ponderous meat. We are the whole package, and the whole package matters.

With the easing of lockdown we have arrived at a fork in the road. In one direction, life as it was. In the other, a new normal of face masks, social distancing, and lateral-flow tests, ‘just in case’. The idea that we should passively let our politicians make decisions about such fundamental matters, assuming they will make wise decisions on our behalf, is foolishness. Those of us who want to recapture the life we once had need to get serious about doing the things that we always used to do, in acceptance of the very small associated risks. That begins with shaking hands – the simple gesture that has been with us for thousands of years, through plague, war and famine, and whose message of trust and openness is too important to allow it to be abandoned because of this novel pathogen.

Dr David McGrogan is Associate Professor of Law at Northumbria Law School.

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December 2022
Free Speech Union

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