Cultural ‘coming together’ is a complex dance. When we meet ‘another’ the underlying cultural expectations and norms can set up our entire experience of this new entity before we speak or even know who they are. In much of ‘western’ culture, for possibly the past 600 years there has been an unspoken, physically played out prescription of pressing flesh, of touching palms in a gesture indicating benevolence, trust, and safety. To be short: the handshake.
The shaking of another’s hand is alleged to have originated in the form of ensuring an acquaintance had not secreted a knife up their sleeve, or at the very least involved an action that would dislodge a weapon. Considering such consciously violent genealogy, it is surprising that the act has become emblematic of peace and negotiation and not suffering and death.
Sadly, the situation during pandemics, or the mass spread of infections, creates the paradox that the very contact we all crave can become a transmissible route for death and disease. The symbol of togetherness and harmony can suddenly become a weapon of destruction.
The instant we meet there is a social drive to connect, to see how we fit together and how we can meet. The handshake does this and more, also acting as a tactile representation of hierarchies and levelling of differences. The Covid-19 pandemic has therefore highlighted our need for social contact to smooth differences and cement alliance, as well as our physical need for contact-based reassurance and confirmation of the very fact of our existence from our external stimulus.
As social creatures our physical contact conveys empathy, togetherness, and an understanding beyond words. The highly infectious nature of our current viral foe has globally forced us to retreat from the contact we enjoy to the sanctuary of solitary or familial isolation, where the transmission rate of this virus, alongside our usual 2-10 million bacteria, can be managed and minimised.
The fear of contact has led us all to find new ways of demonstrating our togetherness. The peace sign, the elbow bump, the foot tap, and the palms-together, head inclined ‘Namaste’ style greeting have all risen in popularity as greetings and expressions of care at a time when the handshake has become an unwittingly weaponised form of contact.
How this will end is unknown, in every way. Will the social and emotional lives and experiences currently running on a different track return to their usual rails after Covid-19? Will pressing flesh indicate the global eradication of this highly infectious disease and our capacity to surmount these difficult experiences? Or will the time spent in anxious contemplation of the impact of our behaviours and the following adjustments signal the death knell of the handshake and myriad other forms of physical social contact?
One thing is certain. As physically social beings we will always need to find forms of expression to indicate our care, attention, and pleasure at having contact with others. The form those expressions will take may differ from past times but the inception of the new is a fascinating proposition. History is always in the making and this point in time has implications and impact which is proving far wider reaching and pivotal than one might first have guessed.