Humans began shaking hands sometime in the fifth century BC in Ancient Greece, not as a gesture of friendship, but basically, because people couldn’t trust each other. It was a rough time and everyone was trying to kill each other in any way they could.
When knights confronted counterparts from other kingdoms in nonviolent situations, they would reach out to shake their hands. By shaking someone’s hand, you could establish that neither one of you was hiding a weapon. Maybe that’s how the handshake eventually became a sign of trust and friendship over the centuries.
Nowadays, we still greet people with a hearty handshake. Handshakes are used to convey celebrations and gratitude. Before there were written contracts, a man’s handshake was his word. Many diplomats use handshakes as a public display of trust between countries that don’t usually like each other. In sports, especially hockey, athletes shake hands as a sign of good sportsmanship.
My father taught me at a young age about the importance of a firm handshake. We used to practice it, along with making eye contact. He never wanted me to offer a “dead fish,” as he used to call a weak handshake. I’ve shaken hundreds, if not thousands of hands in my personal life and business career and you always remember the people who gave you the “dead fish.”
However, it’s probably one of the worst things we can do during a pandemic. Back in 2009, during the H1N1 crisis, medical experts suggested that we try a different greeting. Thus, “fist bump” was born. With COVID-19, we are asked to forgo any type of hand-to-hand contact. Instead, we are to substitute what seems ridiculous—the elbow bump.
You just don’t erase 2,600 years of handshaking and replace it with an elbow bump. Somehow, I don’t see President Trump and Vladimir Putin meeting on the floor of the UN, doing an elbow bump to signify world peace.
In trying to prevent the spread of infection, like COVID-19, we are forced to make changes in our social greetings. Coming from a large Italian family, that’s easier said than done. Italian gatherings require a hug and a kiss with every member of your family. I could spend the entire cocktail hour at a family wedding, just making sure I said hello (and kissed) every aunt, uncle and cousin in the room. God forbid I happen to miss someone. They will seek out and admonish me with, “So, are you getting too big to say hello to your Aunt Sadie?”
At the end of the night, the cycle needs to be repeated before you can exit the building. Standing at the exit door and waving goodbye to the room is not an option. Anyone that I might have missed will call my mother the next day and rat me out.
Shaking hands or hugging and kissing friends and relatives is not just a custom, it’s our only source of human contact. Friends that I’ve known all my life are becoming grandparents or beginning their retirement. How does anyone think an elbow bump is going to suffice as a congratulatory gesture?
Today, people are working from home and receiving contactless deliveries to their front door. Although we are communicating with video on Face-Time or Zoom, we are missing out on essential human contact. Even when we do venture outside, we’re wearing face coverings and therefore masking our emotions. There is no better reward when doing something nice for someone (like holding open a door), then eliciting a smile. I miss that more than anything.
People insist that when this is all over, we will get back to “normal.” I don’t doubt for a second that we’ll go back to the movies, attend concerts and go to the ballpark again. I’m just not so sure what’s going to become of the hearty handshake as a greeting to strangers.
Unless, of course, you think they might be carrying a weapon.
Paul DiSclafani, a Massapequa resident, is a Press Club of Long Island award-winning columnist (2018, 2020) and an Anton Media Group contributor since 2016.