Jun 18, 2021 - Health

The dubious return of the handshake

Illustration of two hands, one hand is held out for a handshake the other is retracted within its respective shirt sleeve.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Handshakes were one of the first habits to go when the COVID-19 pandemic began last year, but with vaccination rates rising, you may find yourself confronting an outstretched hand again soon.

Why it matters: Whether firm or floppy, handshakes were a near-universal greeting in the West for strangers, business contacts and casual acquaintances. As people emerge from their pandemic shell, it's worth considering the act again — or picking up a new habit.

Handshakes may have emerged as a way to demonstrate to people we didn't know that our intentions were friendly and that we weren't carrying any weapons.

  • But like any form of personal contact, they can spread disease, whether directly through skin-to-skin touching, or simply by bringing two people in close proximity.
  • “I don’t think we should ever shake hands ever again, to be honest with you,” Anthony Fauci said on a podcast last April.
  • A 2014 study found that handshakes transmitted nearly twice as much bacteria as a fist-bump or high five.

Yes, but: As you already may have noticed by its gradual reemergence as vaccination coverage expanded, "the handshake is hard to replace," says Joe Keohane, author of the forthcoming book "The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World."

"Touch and eye contact trigger oxytocin, which bonds people together. And the mechanics of the thing — that mix of vulnerability and tentative trust that go into a handshake — are by design a really good way to start an interaction with someone you don't know."
— Joe Keohane

Between the lines: If both you and the person you're shaking hands with is vaccinated, there's very little risk of contracting COVID-19, the infectious disease specialist William Schaffner told CNN recently.

  • Of course, you may not know a stranger's vaccination status, and even if you are vaccinated, it won't protect you from flus, colds, and other viruses that are set to come back with a vengeance.
  • If that worries you, there are other greeting options that involve little or no contact, like a fist bump or the namaste gesture, which governments in East Asia promoted after the 2003 SARS outbreak.
  • And not everyone loves handshakes — in a 2017 study, female doctors observed no-handshaking rules in a neonatal intensive care unit at higher rates than male doctors.

The bottom line: We may be outgrowing the handshake, but we'll never outgrow our need to connect with each other.

Go deeper