Consider the humble handshake…
Dating back to approximately the 5th century BCE and popularized in the 17th century by Quakers looking for a more egalitarian gesture than bowing or tipping one’s hat, the handshake has become the defacto greeting used in international business situations. To some degree, it has also replaced many traditional forms of personal acknowledgment once used in various cultures around our planet.
A handshake: Donald and Me (or I, uh?)
While searching through news articles this week, I discovered that I have something in common with Donald Trump. [You, dear reader, may be surprised, but imagine how I felt!] It seems that it’s a well-established fact – as opposed to an alternative fact – that Trump is a germaphobe and will often go to great lengths to prevent exposure to coughs, sneezes, and yes, even the common handshake. He reportedly once wrote that the practice of shaking hands was “barbaric”
I admit that I too have occasionally been known to recoil in horror (at least internally) when meeting new people and feeling the pressure to swap sweaty palms. It’s not that I dislike being touched. On the contrary, I think human touch is essential to an individual’s well-being. Part of my reluctance to press hand flesh with a stranger is because of my childhood upbringing.
My mother, always a stickler for proper hygiene, wouldn’t allow my sisters and I to share drinks or take bites off the same piece of food the way many of my friends did with their siblings. While I realize that the teacher – and nurturing mother – in her wanted us to be instilled with good habits that would help us to live the healthiest lives possible, she may have gone a bit too far in training me for life in a messy world.
Added to my earlier conditioning to avoid germs whenever possible, many years of traveling and working in a variety of different cultures and contexts has allowed me to observe that far too many men leave public toilets without washing their hands. GROSS! Therefore, being a bit of a germaphobe myself, not to mention having an undependable immune system due to Crohn’s Disease, my level of concern is automatically heightened whenever there’s an outbreak of a new strain of flu or a coronavirus such as COVID-19 that’s easily transmitted from one hand to another.
While I assure you that I don’t let my own fear of illness prevent me from getting out there and enjoying life, I do exercise a degree of caution depending on the situation. Up to this point, however, I’ve avoided adopting a glove-wearing lifestyle like the late Michael Jackson or Howard Hughes. No, I believe it’s best to face our fears, or if we simply can’t, then we can at least find ways to bypass those fears.
Fear Doesn’t Help, Creativity Does
According to the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO), touching a contaminated surface and then touching your nose, mouth or eyes is one of the principle ways viruses are transmitted.Trust me, no matter how conscious you try to be about not touching your face, it’s incredibly difficult since most of us live in ways that make it impractical to wash our hands every five minutes.
A study cited by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) which gauged the transfer of bacteria during greeting exchange showed that “that transfer is dramatically reduced when engaging in alternative so-called ‘dap’ greetings known as the high five and fist bump compared with a traditional handshake. Adoption of the fist bump as a greeting could substantially reduce the transmission of infectious disease between individuals.” For those interested in the science behind the common handshake, here are some research results from a study at the University of Colorado.
However, my intention is not to further increase the paranoia that already surrounds this pandemic. Instead, why not reduce our risks of spreading germs by using some creative thinking.
As COVID-19 continues to spread around the globe, people are finding ways to adapt their personal habits and daily routines in order to limit their risk of exposure to this new virus. Here’s an interesting video of some recycled old and entirely new ways of greeting that are catching on as alternatives to the hand shake. Note what’s become known as the ‘Wuhan Shake.’
If none of these new styles strikes your fancy, we could even risk a bit of cultural appropriation and adopt a traditional form of greeting from a non-Western culture. When I lived in Southeast Asia, I was quite impressed by the traditional way locals greeted each other, as well as tourists and expats.
The Thai ‘Wai’, also known as the ‘Sampeah’ in neighboring Cambodia, is a lovely greeting performed by placing the hands together in front of one’s chest and bowing slightly in a gesture meant to honor the person being greeted.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has called on locals to use Sampeah instead of shaking hands to prevent the spread of COVID-19. “We should avoid shaking hands until the Covid-19 is over. Instead, we use the gesture of Sampeah to greet each other, it’s easy and fast,” he said in a speech at the closing ceremony of the Cambodian Health Ministry’s annual conference.
The Wai and Sampeah were adopted from an earlier Hindu gesture known as Namaste which means “I bow to the divine in you.” Also known as a ‘posture’ in both Hindu and Buddhist traditions, excavations dating to between 3000 BCE and 2000 BCE have revealed male and female terracotta figures in the Namaste posture.
I realize that bowing to others may not come easily to everyone, but whether a Wai, a Sampeah or a Namaste, I find these greetings to be incredibly humbling. Couldn’t many of us (myself included) use a dose of humility during these days of divisive politics and social media ‘look at me, me, me’ mania?
And, perhaps while we’re developing a deeper sense of personal humility, we can also reduce the risk of passing on an illness to others!