COVID Confessions: An ode to the handshake

I don’t know how to greet people anymore

For the past month I’ve said the exact same thing to every person I’ve interviewed when I meet them.

“I’d shake, but they tell me I’m not supposed to anymore.”

The other person invariably smiles and nods, and we both chuckle about the absurdity of not being able to shake hands. Usually we’ll talk for a minute about how strange everything’s gotten and how we hope it’ll be over soon.

Sometimes they’ll show off an alternative to the old fashioned handshake. In the past month I’ve been bowed at and waved at and given all sorts of odd salutations.

I don’t care for the wave; it feels too aggressive when you’re within whispering distance of someone. I don’t like the elbow bump either, it feels too casual for business. My favorite replacement so far was a sort of foot bump I got from a virologist at UTRGV: we both stood on one foot and knocked the sides of our shoes together in midair. I don’t think it’ll catch on though; people just don’t have the balance for it.

I’m not completely comfortable in a world without handshakes but I’m not convinced the practice will ever come back in style.

I remember the last two times I shook someone’s hand, both just before the COVID-19 pandemic reached crisis proportions.

One was with the bishop. I tried my introductory line about handshakes, but to my surprise he stuck out his hand. I shook; I figured it wasn’t good practice to turn down a handshake from a fellow who’s so friendly with God.

I thought afterward, somewhat irrationally, about how many people a bishop must bump into every day, about how many hands he could’ve shook. I bump into a fair amount of people too, I thought. Maybe I was the riskier shaker. I’ve never been a germophobe or even overly obsessed with cleanliness, but that handshake made me nervous.

The other last time I shook hands was at a local college. I was watching how they were sanitizing classrooms, and I shook half a dozen custodians’ hands. I couldn’t bring myself to not shake, I would have felt unbearably rude.

We bumped into a reporter from another outlet as we were leaving. Recently he came down with symptoms consistent with the virus. I wondered, had I dodged a bullet? What if he’d shaken their hands before I did? None of it’s very rational, but I couldn’t help but think about it. I was afraid of those handshakes.

I remember that for some inexplicable reason we were taught how to bow in elementary school. The girls were taught to curtsey. I’ve never seen anyone curtsey in real life, and until this March, I’d never seen anyone bow to each other.

Bowing, I thought, was very close to being un-American. Kings were bowed to, despots were bowed to. Americans shook.

When you shake someone’s hand you have the opportunity, maybe your only opportunity, to look into a person’s eyes and make physical contact with them.

Handshaking is egalitarian. Men shake and women shake. Rich people shake and poor people shake. A hundred years ago, Theodore Roosevelt set a world record for handshaking: the most powerful man in the country shook 8,510 hands in one day, likely taking a moment for each shake to look the person in the eyes, and nod and smile, just like any handshake from a month ago.

I remember a reporter in our newsroom who had started covering a new city just after the pandemic broke out. She was going to her first city council meeting and wasn’t sure how to introduce herself.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said. “Every time I go to my first meeting I go give everyone a nice, firm handshake.”

That handshake would have been the beginning of her professional relationship with those people. I’ve shaken hands at every job interview I’ve ever been to. I shook my date’s parents’ hands before we went to prom, and I shook hands at my uncle’s funeral. I shook my college roommate’s hand, the hand of every landlord I’ve ever rented from, the university president’s hand while my family took awkward graduation pictures.

There’s been a handshake and the beginning of almost every relationship or venture in my life, and frequently a hug at the end. Doing either today would be considered tantamount to wanton recklessness.

I don’t know what’ll happen to the handshake, but for now it’s on life support. Maybe, when this is all over, the shake and the hug and the high-five will come back and it’ll be like they were never gone. Maybe though, they’ll turn into the bow and the curtsey: relics of a bygone age taught to elementary school kids who won’t ever know what they meant.

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Editor’s note: The coronavirus pandemic has changed everyday life across the Rio Grande Valley. To document that change, The Monitor is publishing personal accounts from journalists and everyday citizens. These are the stories of ordinary life in an extraordinary time. If you have a story to share, email us at news@themonitor.com.