It is a little frightening to realize that something we cannot even see with the naked eye has done away with one of human kind’s most enduring social gestures—the handshake. The Covid-19 pandemic has swept across the world disrupting so many things in our daily lives that we used to take for granted and the handshake was the first casualty. As a precaution against possible infection, this simple method of initial communication and day-to-day salutation is suddenly out of fashion. We will miss the varieties; vigorous, gentle, swinging, cautionary, triumphantly high or flamboyantly across the chest as in a brotherhood.

Politicians are distraught. Glad handing among adoring crowds has been part and parcel of campaigning for office. Now the atmosphere has grown sterile. Puppy love has also taken a hit. New lovers were more likely to shake hands on first encounter, that tantalizing feeling a source of countless songs. Psssst! No more! It is as if civilization has abruptly lost its bearings. We have never been in this state of affairs to this extent. Touching, let alone greeting, is foremost in the human social experience; perhaps only followed by the slaps and punches that come with our moments of disagreements. Although there is no outright panic yet, there is some concern in the etiquette community whether alternatives like the elbow bump carry enough stature and dignity.

In the past, a host of things, from agreeing terms of a business deal to parents giving consent to the marriages of their children have been sealed with a solemn handshake. Heads of states and captains of industry have delighted in the photo opportunity featuring the proverbial handshake.
Some serious scientific study has also gone into the handshake. According to Laura Acevedo, ‘A strong handshake may help you land a job, gain a promotion or score a lucrative client. The right touch allows you to indicate your self-motivation, desire to achieve and assertiveness. These assets translate well to most workplaces. Subtly presenting your assets through nonverbal cues helps support claims on your resume, your business accomplishments and conversations.”

Twenty years ago, under the auspices of the American Psychological Association, William F. Chaplin, PhD, showed that a person’s handshake is consistent over time and is related to some aspects of his or her personality. Those with a firm handshake were more extraverted and open to experience and less neurotic and shy than those with a less firm or limp handshake. The researchers say these results demonstrate that personality traits, assessed through the self-report, can predict specific behaviours assessed by trained observers. As interesting and impressive as all this sounds, you got to ask, but what now?

In the space of just over a year, Covid-19 and the periodical lockdowns has forced us to cower away from each other. And when in public, we are constantly sizing each other up for potential danger signs, hiding behind face masks and oozing of various sanitizer aromas. Hands have taken on another level as weapons of mass destruction. With the handshakes also went the hugging and those pecks on the cheeks, leaving some of us stiff and awkward. Through the ages, countless first impressions have relied on the grip of someone’s hand. Marketing your personality depended on the way you eye-balled the other person while ensuring you exerted an appropriate squeeze and smile.

On the other hand, there is also some relief. No more need to clutch at sweaty, clammy hands or endure bone-crushers whose only motive is to intimidate you. Then there are those cocktails, where in between nibbling at the snacks, you have to debate the merits of shaking someone’s offered hand. But in every adversity comes opportunities. Digital payments have soared with the pandemic’s emergence and a move away from handling cash. Online business is booming. Public figures and celebrities are being targeted with advisories on how to fist and elbow bump correctly. From practically zero, there are now nearly 17 million references on Google about the elbow bump.

During SOP sanctioned gatherings, the expression in your eyes has been elevated to the top as an indicator of your warmth or lack of it above the face mask. Your eyes have become a vital communication tool and coaches in North America and Europe are springing up to show you exactly how to use them better. Leading cosmetic companies also now offer advice on appropriate eye make-up to go with your mask. Put another way, learning to smile with your eyes is no longer a by-the-way, but a social necessity and serious business.

Even if Covid-19 is completely eliminated, the residue of caution and distrust will remain with us for some time to come. This means the handshake is unlikely to make a triumphant return. Pity because it was one of the most effective communications tool for breaking the ice.

About the Author: Mulinde Musoke

Mulinde has had a long and distinguished career in journalism. He received specialized training from Associated Press, The Friedrich Ebert Foundation, Reuters and Thomson Foundation and headed up the Business Desk at The New Vision and later edited the Procurement News magazine and the East African Businessweek.

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