Social norms and good manners evolve to resolve awkward or conflictual situations. Being fully mindful of etiquette informs the individual on how to show up recognizably respectful at a business, community or church event or gathering. This pandemic period of self-isolation and the absence of in-person social interaction has placed the handshaking norm—an introductory or departing demonstration of good manners—on hold, with neither the opportunity to obey nor develop a substitute. You probably haven’t shaken hands with anyone in several weeks.
Yet, it’s difficult to imagine a business deal concluding without the parties engaging in a heartfelt handshake as an expression of satisfaction, congratulations, trust and “I look forward to working with you.” A recent 2019 study published in the Journal Personality of Social Psychology (by J. Schroeder, J. Risen, F. Gino and M. Norton) shows that a handshake prior to negotiations is perceived as an intent to cooperate and leads to improved deal-making outcomes. It is difficult to envision our business culture rejecting a ritual so richly infused with meaning and good vibrations.
Experts say we should leave it behind
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and leader of the White House’s fight against COVID-19, would like the handshake ritual relegated to the past. Dr. Fauci recently and authoritatively declared, “I don’t think we should ever shake hands ever again,” as refraining would reduce instances of COVID-19 and the seasonal flu. “We’ve got to break that custom. Because as a matter of fact, that is really one of the major ways that you can transmit a respiratory illness.”
Dr. Gregory Poland, director of the Mayo Clinic Vaccine Research Group and spokesperson for Infectious Diseases Society of America has been trying to put an end to handshakes for nearly three decades. “It’s an outdated custom.”
This pause from our routine affords the opportunity to reevaluate our greeting rituals. Even before COVID-19, some shunned shaking hands — germophobes and observant Jewish and Muslim populations, when greeting the opposite sex. Within these groups, people had to develop substitutes for welcoming and greeting others in person. Generally, we can’t not shake hands when others do, but we can now expect many more to recoil when offered another’s hand once this crisis subsides.
Does our richly diverse society need a one-size-fits-all greeting? Our modern era of social liberalization allows more forms of individualized self-expression than ever before: gender expression, sexuality, fashion, tattoos and piercings, to name a few. The abstract search for a single salutation to supplant the handshake seems likely to fail. New norms emerge in bottom-up practice, not top-down decrees.
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Verbal greetings certainly vary according to the person and even the occasion. We summon a different verbal greeting for our partners or parents than we do an acquaintance, client or our boss. While “what’s up?” or “Hey dude” may work with friends, introductions at a business meeting require a reserved “My pleasure to see you,” or a simple, “Hello.” But what about the hands, which customarily “reach out” to others?
What will become the societal norm?
The choice of which side of the road to drive on demands one mutually consensual norm. Social awkwardness — not a fatal car crash — is the worst that can come of not coordinating our greetings with one another. And with weeks (if not months) of continued self-isolation ahead, we have time to imagine and talk about how greeting expectations might evolve. But like price discovery in free markets, what will emerge is unpredictable. Was the handshake itself foreseeable? People will resolve their differences in opinion by trial-and-error resolution. We’re trying to hit upon something that feels good, fit, and right.
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Taking a look at how people are reaching out on communication technologies, we’ve observed others giving a little wave, a thumbs up, and nodding one’s head in greeting. What these welcoming greetings all share is appropriate eye contact and a smile!
What might our new greetings look like? Less or no skin-to-skin contact is a sure bet. Blow your kisses across the room or save them for your loved ones. Mimic a “virtual hug,” perhaps. Do you envision bowing at the waist to another or clasping your hands together in a prayer-like gesture exclaiming “Namaste,” or simply crossing your wrists on your chest while making good eye contact? Can you see the challenge in trying to replace the handshake with one singular salutation?
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When we surface from this crisis and get to be in one another’s company again, it’s uncertain as to how we’ll greet each other again physically. This break from socializing allows each one of us to consider what replacing the handshake might feel like.
Will the handshake be a short-term or permanent casualty? Regardless, expect people to continue their diverse experiments with acceptable substitutes. Out of that diversity, we may fashion a new set of norms.
Bradley Ruffle is a professor of economics and academic director of McMaster University’s Decision Science Laboratory. Candace Smith is a business etiquette coach, founding manager of Candace Smith ETIQUETTE, and a retired, national award-winning secondary school educator. Follow them on Twitter: @BradleyRuffle & @EtiquetteEntry