The handshake is back, sort of, and it’s causing etiquette chaos

Mark Read is the chief executive of WPP, the global advertising powerhouse, and now that he is back seeing clients in an increasingly vaccinated business world, he is cheerfully shaking their hands.

“With people I don’t know, it’s an icebreaker,” he told me last week. “The elbow thing has gone, certainly for me.”

Sir Douglas Flint, chair of the newly renamed Abrdn asset manager, has a more guarded plan of attack for this unsteady new phase of Covid conduct.

“I’m certainly not walking into a room and offering a hand,” he says. Instead, he holds back and waits to see what people prefer. “You kind of let them make the first move and you go in a nanosecond behind them.”

After several days of deeply unscientific surveying, I have no idea which of these two greeting strategies is more prevalent. But I can report that, without a doubt, it is bedlam out there.

The uneven state of vaccinations, plus wildly divergent views about what safe behaviour looks like, has divided us into an awkward mix of shakers, bumpers and fist knockers. 

The results, alas, can be dire. A man based in Germany who works with a friend of mine in London had an especially brutal time during last month’s England versus Scotland game in the Euros football tournament.

As he wrote to my friend: “I met some new friends at a bar. Everyone was fist bumping, so I did the same. Then another chap walked in. I extended my fist, and he went for a handshake.”

Neither reacted quickly enough and the handshaker turned out to like a good long shake. “So we just stood there for an excruciatingly long amount of time, him just holding and shaking my protruded arm stump like a ball and socket joint.”

Unseemly collisions between fist-bumpers and hand-shakers are not confined to Germany. From Sydney to San Diego, I’m told they are turning mundane opening pleasantries into a painful game of scissors-paper-rock.

Things seem especially fraught in the US, where nearly 70 per cent of adults have had at least one Covid shot, but 57 per cent of Republicans think the pandemic is over, compared with just 4 per cent of Democrats. 

An American friend based in London who just returned from a trip to both US coasts was surprised to find handshakes and even hugs were rife.

“There was a kind of pent-up desire to take things back to where they were before,” he said. That’s fine if you’re one of the fully vaccinated, but not if you are among, say, the many under-40s in the UK who are not.

My friend said it was also evident that older male bosses were “very much in handshake mode”, especially in sectors such as the energy business.

I am still unsure what role gender may be playing here.

For every female colleague who says she would be thrilled to swap handshakes and hugs — not to mention kisses — for bows, a namaste or nothing at all, I know at least one man who agrees. That includes one colleague who found himself at a recent business meeting where a well-known bigwig opened proceedings by showily pumping the hands of all present. My colleague was so appalled he could barely stop himself bolting to the bathroom to scrub his hands.

I sympathise with him. Yet I have also found lately that, on the rare occasions I have met someone new, some sort of muscle-memory has made me shoot out my hand for a shake, after which I make a flustered apology and create general embarrassment for all.

Unfortunately, history suggests the pandemic will not kill the handshake, or any other touch-based greeting.

As evolutionary biologist, Ella Al-Shamahi, writes in her recent book, The Handshake: A Gripping History, the greeting has survived repeated efforts to ban it during past outbreaks of cholera, flu and the like.

Since chimps and uncontacted tribes of humans have similar gestures, she thinks we may be genetically hard-wired to shake, perhaps to deliver things like smell-related chemosignals to each other.

Researchers have found people are more likely to sniff their hands after a handshake than if they are greeted without a touch. “We primates yearn for touch,” she says. “And the elbow bump really is the poor man’s handshake.”

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Twitter: @pilitaclark

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