It's a ritual we take for granted, when we say hello, when we say goodbye, as a gesture of good will, as a show of respect … and it's something we've all of a sudden had to learn not to do.
But according to Patricia Napier-Fitzpatrick, founder of the Etiquette School of New York, "The handshake is not dead. At least I hope not! It's on hold temporarily until the world is well again.
"I often say I teach knives and forks and handshakes, because that's how important handshakes are in greetings," she said.
And yes, there is a proper technique, as she explained to correspondent Mo Rocca: "To shake hands properly, one simply extends one's right arm toward the other person, gripping web to web, and you shake from the elbow one, two. Two smooth pumps. Holding firmly but not a bone crusher and not a limp noodle."
Rocca said, "I once read about little-remembered President Benjamin Harrison of the late 19th century. A critic of his said he had a handshake like a 'wilted petunia.'"
"Oh my!" laughed Napier-Fitzpatrick. "You see, the people remember your handshakes. It's an instrumental part of your first impression."
Anthropologist David Givens, of Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, described the handshake as "a very primal sort of a connection, very emotional."
He said the handshake reaches back 60 million years: "Chimpanzees and gorillas do much the same thing. They long for tactile contact. They basically reach out with the forelimbs, and especially with the palm."
"So, it's not an accident that we greet each other by shaking hands?" asked Rocca.
"No. Because hands have all the neurological circuitry and the emotional parts that we need to make good contact with our fellow humans."
And throughout human history, the handshake has been an expression of peace and forgiveness. Alas, it is also, as we've learned, an excellent delivery vehicle for germs.
And for that reason, Givens said, "The casual handshake is pretty much at present dead. The formal handshake for closing a business deal, this I think will remain. But there will be precautions beforehand. You may even use a thin glove to make the handshake."
Miryam Roddy, of Brody Professional Development in Jenkintown, Pa., is such a fan of handshaking she created National Handshake Day in 2004. It's traditionally the last Thursday of June. "Used to be, anyway" she laughed.
She told Rocca, "My personal pet peeve is the macho cowboy, a.k.a., 'I don't want to hurt the little lady.' Or, or you know, 'I just wanna kinda give you a little grip here.' I demand respect, and I would like a firm grip."
She knows that this June's celebration will have to be virtual, but she's not ready to part with the ritual completely.
"I feel like if the handshake is gone, that would be very sad for me, personally," Roddy said.
But even if we can't touch, David Givens says we'll still use our hands (what he calls our emotional smart parts) to communicate good will. "A good example is the Plains Indian greeting where you raise your palm out and shine it at another person from a distance," he said.
"The eyes are going to be especially important now," Napier-Fitzpatrick replied. "Because that's how we're going to communicate warmth and trust."
Perhaps we'll look to Asia for alternatives, or to outer space! And await the day when we can once again join hands with our fellow man and woman.
For more info:
- The Etiquette School of New York
- David Givens, Director for the Center for Nonverbal Studies, Gonzaga University, Spokane, Wash.
- Brody Professional Development, Jenkintown, Pa.
- National Handshake Day
Story produced by Jay Kernis. Editor: Carol Ross.