Are we witnessing the demise of the handshake?

The current global pandemic and lockdown have forced us to re-assess everything we know and do on a daily basis – and change it. Things that were considered rude or socially unacceptable especially in polite company or formal settings have all been debunked for the sake of safety. For example, when you rode a bus in Berlin, there was always an announcement asking passengers to hold on tight for your own safety if you were standing. Yesterday on the way home from the office I noticed several changes in the way we commute now. First of all, all bus, subway and tram doors open automatically. Prior to the lockdown you had to press a button to open the door at the stop, but now there are new stickers on all the doors warning you otherwise.

The announcement on the buses has changed as well. Instead of being asked to hold on tight (Berliner bus drivers do indeed have the well-deserved reputation for driving on the wild side and being among the rudest on the planet), you are now instructed to cough into the crook of your arm if you must, and not cover your mouth with your bare hands. My mother would have bitten my head off if I had ever done that in her presence!

At the beginning of the lockdown in Berlin people would snicker at the commuters wearing a protective face mask, but yesterday it was the complete opposite. The commuters on the subway stared in horror at the young girls who got on and were not wearing face masks like everyone else – because it would ruin their make-up. Gone are the inhibitions of looking like a freak for wearing a mask. The ubiquitous mask has become very much like the mobile phones – never leave home without one. Never before has the saying Better safe than sorry weighed so heavily on people’s minds.

The most dramatic change, however, is the collective renunciation of the handshake. Many still struggle with this, but after a few medical experts went on record the other day saying that hand shakes could be banned for the next two years, the time has come to re-evaluate the need for it at all.

The handshake is western in origin, dating back to medieval times when an extension of a bare hand was proof that you were not carrying a weapon, and was therefor a sign of good will. Most Asians grew up with entirely different gestures as greetings, such as the Namaste in India or Sawadika in Thailand, where you fold your hands together in front of your chest and bow your head in deference. The western handshake was deemed unacceptable until recently, especially between men and women, and in some cultures it still is. These cultures will have no qualms about giving up the handshake altogether, since there are many alternatives which come more naturally to them, the Japanese Ojigi, for example or the Korean Jeol.

To the westerner, on the other hand, who has no other alternative greeting in a formal or business setting, the disappearance of the handshake will be painful. Don’t try to convince me that the ridiculous ankle, elbow or foot knocking is a suitable replacement either! When I reverted back to the Namaste greeting in March and began greeting people with it here in Berlin I got really strange looks, and made a few people feel awkward. It was considered a strange and overly religious greeting. Just imagine if I had gone around greeting everyone with Sat Sri Akaal!

Where do we go from here?

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