However, according to a Washington Post article about returning to office life, “are you shaking?” is the question of the moment: asking if you are willing to shake hands and resume a practice that once was customary but that now may become much rarer due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Signaling the shift is the blunt advice from Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, in April 2020: “I don’t think we should ever shake hands ever again, to be honest with you. Not only would it be good to prevent coronavirus disease; it probably would decrease instances of influenza dramatically in this country.”
Countering this advice is the belief of Ella Al-Shamahi, a paleoanthropologist and author of The Handshake: A Gripping History (2021), that the handshake is hard-wired into our DNA. She writes, “I would argue that the handshake is not just prehistoric, but that it has a deep evolutionary history—that it is older than our species and that, yes, the Neanderthals did shake hands. In fact, I would say the handshake is at least 7m [million] years old.”
As folklorists, we make no claims to knowing the etiquette of Neanderthals. However, our research indicates that the handshake is not as deeply rooted as Al-Shamahi believes. Folk gestures, such as the handshake and other forms of greeting, have waxed and waned among many different cultures.
For instance, users of the dap expanded from Black G.I.s in the 1960s to many more segments of society. The “call me” gesture, which came from twentieth-century telephones—the extended thumb for the earpiece and extended pinky for the mouthpiece—may fade away because it no longer resembles the phones we use today. Today’s gentlemen rarely if ever kiss the hands of ladies. Hate groups have appropriated the okay sign, which renders it increasingly unusable. Based on our own hesitancies—and also what we have observed in contemporary social settings—we feel that 2021 may be time for the bilateral handshake as folk gesture to wane for good.
Historians believe that the modern handshake is at least 3,000 years old, based on a relief from the ninth century BCE, which depicts King Marduk-Zakir-Shumi I of Babylonia shaking hands to forge an alliance with the Assyrian King Shalmaneser III. The custom continued among the ancient Greeks, based on representations found on vases, reliefs, and funerary art. In these contexts, handshakes conveyed peaceful intentions among armed men. Extending the right hand with an open palm and shaking your hand up and down was a way to demonstrate that there were no weapons hidden in your sleeve. Further evidence comes from the poet Homer, who in both the Iliad and the Odyssey includes scenes where men “grasp” hands as displays of trust.
Ancient Romans adopted the custom of the Greeks to signify that strangers had no ill intentions toward each other. People clasping hands appeared on Roman coins, and in Fanti from the first century CE, the Roman poet Ovid described how the Sabine women persuaded their fathers and husbands to stop fighting: “The men let their weapons and their mettle fall, and, having laid by their swords, the fathers-in-law shake hands with their sons-in-law and receive their handshake.”
While the Assyrians, Greeks, and Romans were shaking each other’s hands, other cultures expressed their courtesies and demonstrated their peaceful intentions in very different ways. For instance, the Chinese used the fist and palm salute. To perform this correctly, you held both hands together—one hand in a half fist and one hand with an open palm—then raised both hands to your forehead and moved them quickly back and forth three times, all while maintaining eye contact with the person you were greeting. The fist and palm salute derives from the Zhou Li (second century BCE), one of the three ancient ritual texts to teach Confucianism, but many Chinese still maintain the folk custom during Chinese New Year and other traditional occasions.
Another touchless greeting from the East is the folk gesture known as namaste—from the Sanskrit, literally meaning “greeting to you.” On the Indian subcontinent and other parts of Asia, the namaste gesture demonstrates courtesy and respect. Its lineage is ancient, based on sculpture and figurines dating to the third millennium BCE, but it remains highly contemporary. Even former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested its use as an alternative to handshakes when the pandemic emerged in March 2020.
Additional evidence that the handshake greeting is far from universal comes from Russia, where handshakes were uncommon prior to the nineteenth century. Believing that the touching of skin caused sexual tension between members of the opposite sex, the Russian Empire prohibited the handshake and instead recommended an unusual variation known as Rukobit’e (Рукобитье, or “hand hitting”) in which two men beat each other on the hand, but avoid skin-to-skin contact by wearing canvas mittens or using a coat to cover their bare hands. This folk gesture often concluded Russian wedding rituals, when the fathers of newlyweds hit each other’s hands to signal their agreement with the marriage. Indeed, one detailed history of Russian greetings maintains that the word “handshake” did not appear in Russian-language dictionaries until the nineteenth century, when the Russians borrowed the European tradition of shaking hands.
With handshakes becoming more common throughout the nineteenth century, the Russians established etiquette norms—some new and some old. For instance, the eldest man typically extended his hand first, inviting the youngest in the circle to shake with him—but never across the threshold, which according to old Slavic traditions might disturb one’s deceased ancestors under the threshold. Moreover, for many Russians, the handshake was an insufficient folk greeting. As prominent Russian novelist Ivan S. Turgenev wrote in Fathers and Sons (1862), “After completing this preliminary European-style ‘handshake,’ [Pavel Petrovitch] then kissed [his nephew] three times in the Russian manner; that is, he brushed his perfumed moustaches, and said, ‘Welcome.’”
However, handshakes in Russia waned again not long after the 1917 Russian Revolution when Nicholay Semashko, the People’s Commissar of Public Health, imposed a strict ban on handshakes in response to the 1918 influenza pandemic and later to scabies, typhus, and cholera. Similarly, “The Union for the Simplification of Greetings” tried to eradicate traditional Russian greetings, such as triple kissing, hugging, and handshaking, which it deemed relics of pre-revolutionary and bourgeois life. The Soviet government continued its ban on handshakes into the 1940s through thematic posters that declared, “Free of Handshakes.” The preferred alternatives were the clenched fist of the Russian United Labor Front or the “salute of the pioneers” in which the right elbow bends at a ninety-degree angle so that the forearm and straightened fingers signal being “all ready.”
That being said, the Russian rules of handshake etiquette (both pre-Soviet and later) were relatively simple compared with those from Victorian Era, both in the United Kingdom and United States. According to The Ladies’ and Gentlemen’s Etiquette (1877) by Eliza Duffey, “The etiquette of handshaking is simple. A man has no right to take a lady’s hand until it is offered. He has even less right to pinch or retain it.” Moreover, the Victorians strictly regulated the manner in which you should shake hands. For instance, it was fashionable in some circles to raise your arms to chest level when extending a hand for shaking. Of course, gentlemen—but not ladies—needed to remove their gloves before shaking hands, and hands should be cool and dry before one could offer it for shaking. British etiquette manuals advised against shaking with members of the working class because their hands might be too soiled from working long hours in factories.
The waxing and waning of handshaking across many different cultures and centuries should tell us that it’s no big deal if now we were to discontinue the custom for an extended period of time. Some might even say that it’s traditional to do so. The Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793 led the Philadelphia publisher Mathew Carey to observe that “the old custom of shaking hands fell into such general disuse, that many persons shrank back with affright at the offer of the hand.” Writing in the American Journal of Nursing on “The Bacterial Significance of the Handshake” in 1929, nurse Leila Given noted that “the hands are agents of bacterial transfer.” Dr. Gregory Poland, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, expressed remarkably similar sentiments when he told the BBC in April 2020, “When you extend your hand, you’re extending a bioweapon.”
Even some guides to contemporary etiquette are dispensing advice on how to politely decline touching one of those bioweapons. “Key is an apologetic expression,” Miss Manners suggested in April 2020. “Bring the eyebrows together while making a pathetic little smile. You could also shrug, with your palms open (See? No weapons!) while saying ‘Sorry, I can’t shake’—and then hurrying on to say how glad you are to see that person with no time to explain why. ‘I’m afraid you might make me sick’ is not a charming statement.”
James Deutsch is a curator at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage who grew up in northern New Jersey, where various hand gestures are common.
Yuliya Gluhova is a former intern at the Center who is from Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, and currently studies anthropology and political science at Mississippi State University.