Most of us -- the smart ones, anyway -- have severely
limited our direct contact with people, from the folks we used to share offices with every workday to the extended family members we love enough to want to see but also to protect.
A contagion has redefined the personal space around us, forcing people to give up hugs, those warm embraces we use to signal deep friendship and genuine joy at coming into each other's company again.
Greetings all look the same from 6 feet away. Perhaps a nod of the head and a smile, but actual touch? That's, unfortunately, a necessary no-no in the age of covid-19.
I'm reminded of the times years ago, when many newsrooms were inside the same buildings as inky presses that printed each day's edition of the newspaper. As a reporter or editor, I'd wear a decently nice pair of dress pants and a button-up shirt -- what many would call business casual. The press guys didn't wear anything they weren't willing to get ink all over.
Over the years, I figured out my walk through any pressroom had to have serious intentionality. Ink lurked everywhere, even in pressrooms with foremen who were sticklers for cleaning. Several times, though I was quite satisfied I had navigated the pressroom without incident, a fellow newsroom staffer would later note the presence of a black blob on my pants leg or the upper sleeve of my shirt. Ugh!
For me, it was almost impossible to avoid, and that was ink I could see. How challenging it is to avoid an invisible virus that can lurk anywhere.
Our social practices, we've learned, are not our friends in a pandemic, so we've at least temporarily abandoned them. The custom of handshakes has been around for thousands of years, ostensibly used in medieval times as a greeting that showed one's hand to be empty of any weapon. Today, an offered hand might be empty, but threatening nonetheless.
"I don't think we should ever shake hands ever again, to be honest with you," Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. "Not only would it be good to prevent coronavirus disease; it probably would decrease instances of influenza dramatically in this country."
But, come on, handshakes are deeply rooted in how we evaluate people. Imagine the business world without handshakes. So many people get their first impressions through them -- was it firm (confidence) or sweaty (nervousness) or limp (uncertain) or crushing (aggressive) or unoffered (unfriendly)?
Scientists say we tend to touch our faces 15 to 25 times an hour, so it's not hard to appreciate the benefits of giving up skin-on-skin contact as a casual greeting or affirmation.
But what would we replace handshakes with? For goodness sake, let's not adopt the goofy elbow bump or foot tap (sorry, soccer players). And I don't see Americans adopting the mid-waist bow, popular in Asian and other cultures; perhaps a little too submissive for a country that fought a war to keep from bowing to a king, tamed the frontier, put a man on the moon and loves John Wayne movies.
A wave? A head nod? The World Health Organization's director-general said he was converting to a hand-on-heart gesture.
By necessity, a replacement achieves its goal by avoiding all contact, so they're all going to feel a little odd. I'm sure we can pull this off, though. After all, there's almost universal agreement on the powerful meaning of one gesture that avoids all contact, and it only requires one finger.
So, yeah, I think replacing the handshake is doable.
But if anyone suggests we eliminate hugs, too, I know a few moms and grandmas who will march on Washington.
Commentary on 04/12/2020