D.L. Stewart: A longtime social custom may be on shaky grounds

Will people continue to shake hands after the pandemic passes?
Will people continue to shake hands after the pandemic passes?

Whenever and however it happens, post-pandemic life will be dramatically altered, social scientists predict. Baseball games, NFL drafts and NASCAR races staged without fans in the stands. People wearing masks who aren’t necessarily robbing banks. Not to mention the end of a custom that has been around for thousands of years — shaking hands.

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One popular theory is that handshaking began as a way of conveying peaceful intentions. By extending their empty right hands, strangers could show that they weren’t holding weapons. Apparently it never occurred to anyone that the stranger might be left-handed; it’s entirely possible that Julius Caesar was done in by a gang of left-handed assassins.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Tuesday, March 31, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Tuesday, March 31, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

But now, 79-year-old Dr. Anthony Fauci — who has replaced 87-year-old Ruth Bader Ginsberg as America’s favorite senior rock star — has recommended abolishing handshaking for health reasons. Even before coronavirus began to complicate our lives, medical experts were aware that shaking hands was known to spread other diseases, such as scabies.

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Scabies aside, handshaking always has raised questions for me. Growing up in the 1950s, I was taught that the test of a man’s character could be determined by whether he had a firm handshake. I’m not sure how that was decided. For all we know, Attila the Hun, Benedict Arnold and Roger Ailes had firm handshakes. (I have no idea how a woman’s character was determined back then. Maybe it had to do with the shade of her lipstick).

But I’m insecure about my handshake. Is it firm enough? Too firm? If the other guy can crush my knuckles more than I can crush his knuckles, does that mean he’s a better person than I am?

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While we’re at it, maybe we should consider doing away with other customs of questionable social value.

High fives, for instance, which are believed to have originated with baseball’s Dusty Baker in 1977 and were adopted by cool hipsters, now are given and returned by little old ladies, little old men and total nerds. We even taught our Yorkie to “gimme five,” although an examination of his paw showed he only had four.

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I could do without all the indiscriminate hugging going on these days, too. Hugging used to be reserved for people with whom we had close relationships, such as spouses, children and bartenders. Now total strangers wrap their arms around each other for lengthy embraces with other total strangers.

And I never cared for cheek kissing unless it was going to lead to something more exciting.

But getting rid of handshakes would be a good first step — and we probably should resolve to get started on it right away.

Maybe we should shake on that.