Handshakes and Hugs

Human contact in a post-quarantine world

Photo by Morgan McDonald on Unsplash

In 1982, when I was a junior in high school, one of my friends announced he’d learned in health class that hugs were good for you, so he was going to hug his friends every day. I loved to see him walking down the hall toward me, knowing I was about to be hugged. Until this simple ritual became part of my everyday, I’d had no idea how much I needed it.

Two years later, when I was a freshman in journalism school, one of my first female professors lectured my class on the need to get out of our comfort zones, to talk to strangers wherever we went, to shake hands when we introduced ourselves. Women especially needed to instigate handshakes, she said.

Fast forward to 2020, when life in so many respects has been tipped upside down and shaken until all the extraneous comforts and rules we’ve taken for granted for so long have started to drop away. Across Facebook and Twitter, women especially seem to be promoting the need to never again return to a norm in which people hug you for no reason and shaking hands is considered a polite gesture. The relief of never again being expected to participate in such rituals seems palpable among many.

For some of us, though, such gestures would be sorely missed if they were to completely disappear. Among family and friends, I love to give and receive hugs. Hugs seem to fill my reserves and reassure me some things in this world are certain and true. In “Ten Astonishing Health Benefits of a Hug,” Amanda Warton Jenkins writes that the benefits of being hugged go beyond simply being reassured that we are loved. Studies have shown hugs stimulate good things, like “the brain’s memory center,” and lower bad things, like high blood pressure and anxiety. So that warm, fuzzy feeling some of us get when hugged is actually a physical response. Turns out my friend’s high school health teacher knew what he was talking about.

From symbols of peace to germ magnets

But what about shaking hands? DeepEnglish.com explores the origins of this traditional gesture in a piece called “Handshake History,” which states handshakes became popular as a symbol of peace — and/or to ensure against hidden weapons:

“The history of the handshake dates back to the 5th-century B.C. in Greece. It was a symbol of peace, showing that neither person was carrying a weapon. During the Roman era, the handshake was actually more of an arm grab. It involved grabbing each other’s forearms to check that neither man had a knife hidden up his sleeve. Some say that the shaking gesture of the handshake started in Medieval Europe. Knights would shake the hand of others in an attempt to shake loose any hidden weapons.”

While fist and elbow bumps are now considered better, healthier alternatives to handshakes, I will likely always still pause to see if the person I’m meeting extends their hand and, if they do, shake it. I find this simple gesture not so much an indication that I’m a professional, a belief my journalism teacher sought to instill in my classmates and me, but that the person I’m meeting and I have a lot in common — regardless how different we may seem to be.

When I was researching race relations issues for my first novel, I learned the many subtle ways racism has impacted behaviors for generations. A common slight was for white customers in stores and other establishments to avoid touching the hand of black cashiers when exchanging money. I’ve read reports of customers dropping their money on a counter or even tossing it toward a black cashier rather than risk touching their hand, and receiving change back from a black cashier could send some people into a panic. In “Calling BS: The coronavirus and racism,” Triad City Beat (NC) associate editor Sayaka Matsuoka reported in early February on the racist treatment of people of Asian heritage in the U.S. She linked to a Los Angeles Times article about a cashier who recounted how a customer asked him to get a new product after his hand had touched the one he was bagging. Maybe one reason I’ll miss shaking hands is because I’ll consider the refusal to shake someone’s hand a slight akin to such racist behaviors. I did notice the other day when I was checking out at a grocery store that touching another person’s hand even when we’re both wearing thin, clear gloves still allowed for at least some semblance of contact. In our increasingly noncash society, such interactions may only be limited to the exchange of printed receipts, but they’re still there for now. I, for one, will miss them when stores get to the point at which cashiers aren’t needed at all.

The need for touch

Despite the many social media posts I’ve seen lately about how much some hope hugs and handshakes become much less common after the pandemic, I have also seen stories of people — again primarily women — talking about the lack of physical touch they’re experiencing during the quarantine and how much they don’t like this. Some miss their monthly massages, some miss seeing their adult children or grandchildren, some have lost a spouse in the past year and still yearn for their touch. One hair stylist told the story of a client who said her hair appointments were the only time she was touched since she was a widow with no children. The stylist said she always spends extra time washing that client’s hair, which I find such a simple, kind act.

Recently Time magazine ran a piece called “The Coronavirus Outbreak Keeps Humans from Touching. Here’s Why That’s So Stressful.” In it, journalist Megan McCluskey explores how isolation is impacting Americans and cites scientists who agree that the benefits of human touch are many. She links to a podcast in which Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, states he “doesn’t think Americans should ever shake hands again.” And she notes that Paul Zak, a professor of economics, psychology, and management at Claremont Graduate University, says it’s important to keep in mind that “physical touch can…play a major role in our health and happiness.” While customs like shaking hands and hugging may fall by the wayside in a post-pandemic world, Zak says people will need to find alternative ways to keep “the humanity of positive touch [in] in-person interactions without putting anyone’s physical or mental health in jeopardy.” A tall order, indeed, considering the times we now live in.

I write fiction, poetry, and nonfiction when I’m not working as a copy editor. Author of the novel One Sister’s Song.

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Bylines in Publishers Weekly, the Syracuse (NY) Post-Standard, others. One Sister’s Song (novel). Not Nearly Everything You Need to Know About Writing (ebook).

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