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Could the handshake really disappear?

Is it even possible?

King Shalmaneser III of Assyria meeting a Babylonian, detail from Shalmaneser III's throne, relief on stone.
King Shalmaneser III of Assyria meeting a Babylonian, detail from Shalmaneser III's throne, relief on stone.DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY/De Agostini via Getty Images

Russell Holmes was a staunch practitioner of the handshake.

This was true both in his capacity as a state representative — a job that he estimates could demand somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,000 to 1,500 handshakes on a big day — and in his work as a financial planner, where rest assured, he says, “when folks are giving you all the money in their life, they want to shake your hand and feel they can trust you.”

So as the ongoing pandemic has forced Holmes, like the rest of us, to keep his right hand holstered in the name of public health, the absence of the ritual has left him feeling disconcerted.

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“I think a lot of folks,” he says, “feel disconnected without the handshake.”

And yet, in the midst of the greatest public health crisis in generations, the handshake suddenly finds itself on perilous ground, as some have called not just for a temporary suspension of the practice but a permanent shelving. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has made no secret of his feeling that it might be time to retire the handshake for good. And in a recent interview with the BBC, Mayo Clinic infectious disease expert Gregory Poland went further, calling it an outdated practice with no place in contemporary society.

“When you extend your hand," he told the outlet, "you’re extending a bioweapon.”

From boardrooms to ballfields, the centuries-old custom has survived not so much for what it is — a brief meeting of the palms — but for what it signifies. It is a vehicle for human connection, conveying trust, respect, and congeniality.

Possibly because of those seemingly unique qualities, the handshake has rebounded from past attempts to unseat it. But some say the scale of devastation and terrifying speed of the coronavirus’s global spread is such a shock to the culture that this time may be different.

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“I think we’re in a time when we are now going to have to reevaluate a lot of the ways we interact in society,” says Dan Chonde, a resident physician at Massachusetts General Hospital who hopes the handshake’s temporary hiatus becomes permanent. “As far as cultural norms go, things come and things go.

“It seems perfectly reasonable that the handshake could definitely be one of them.”

The handshake’s presumed original purpose — to convey to another that you were not carrying a weapon — is a mostly moot point these days. And there is abundant scientific literature showing it to be a highly unsanitary custom; a 2014 study out of Wales found a handshake to be 20 times less sanitary than a fist-bump.

A dramatic demonstration of that appeared to play out on the world stage back in March, when British Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisted that he would continue to shake hands, noting that he’d shaken the hand of everyone he’d encountered during a recent visit to a hospital where coronavirus patients were being treated.

A month later, he was in the ICU, being treated for COVID-19.

Still, the ritual has been remarkably resilient through history.

Documented at least as far back as the fifth century and popularized as an everyday greeting in America by 18th-century Quakers, the handshake has survived a number of existential threats, from the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, when it was temporarily banned but eventually emerged unscathed, to more recent outbreaks of SARs and Ebola.

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Alternatives such as the elbow bump and the foot-tap have never taken hold. And there is evidence that it does serve a constructive purpose.

In a 2014 study, researchers from three universities, including Harvard, had participants engage in a fictional, one-on-one business deal. Some of the pairs were assigned to shake hands before negotiating; others were not.

“Executives assigned to shake hands before a more antagonistic, distributive negotiation were less likely to lie about self-benefiting information, increasing cooperation even to their own detriment,” the researchers wrote.

But there are questions, too, about how much of that is truly due to the act of clasping hands.

In the same study, the researchers discovered that trust was also built if someone declined a handshake by explaining that they were sick and possibly contagious.

“It suggests that it’s not the specific gesture that really matters," said Michael I. Norton, a professor at Harvard Business School who worked on the study. "It’s that you find a way to communicate that you care about the other person.”

Even as plenty of other cultures have gotten by swimmingly without it, some wonder whether the handshake is too ingrained in Western culture to be expunged now — could a “namaste” bow, for instance, ever gain the traction necessary to replace it? As recent demonstrations protesting stay-at-home orders have shown, it’s difficult enough to get people to stay indoors for a few weeks in the name of saving lives, let alone alter a centuries-old tradition.

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“It’s hard to unlearn a behavior," says Jacqueline Whitmore, an etiquette expert and founder of The Protocol School of Palm Beach. "Especially when you’ve been raised to shake hands your entire life.”

There are those, certainly, who could stand to live without it.

“Sometimes, there’s sort of a power play in a handshake that I’m very aware of as a woman,” says Geri Denterlein, CEO of the Boston-based communications agency, Denterlein. “I might not miss that.”

But to Holmes, the state representative, the handshake exists as something more, a versatile tool that can be used to do anything from establish trust to make a point. (“It sends a message," he says, “when I walk into a room and don’t want to greet you with a handshake.”)

And without it, he believes, something indelible would be lost.

“I’m telling you,” Holmes says, “it’s so much more than just a handshake.”


Dugan Arnett can be reached at dugan.arnett@globe.com.