Dating back to medieval times, the origin of handshakes can be traced to Roman soldiers, knights and men who carried concealed weapons, hence shaking hands was a way to ensure both parties were not hiding any daggers from each other. Over time, it evolved into a polite greeting worldwide with each culture adapting their own version of the custom.
Eye contact or not, firmness of handshake, whose hand to shake first, follow-up actions after shaking hands, all these factors vary in different countries. Depending on the situation, some countries do not shake hands at all. For instance, Thailand’s ‘wai’ (greeting) where the hands are placed together, and raised upwards towards the face while the head bows slightly, and the Japanese who execute a formal bow upon meeting. In other nations such as Morocco, opposite genders may shake hands only if the female offers to.
However, the global tradition is slowly being rejected in certain parts of the world and in some, even frowned upon and banned – like handshake-free zones in the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) hospital.
Debate over the time-honoured greeting was first sparked in 2014, when Dr. Mark Sklansky, a cardiologist and self-described germaphobe, published an article recommending a ban on handshakes in healthcare settings. His rationale lies in how restriction of the handshake paired with more robust hand hygiene may limit the spread of infections in hospitals.
In a separate study at the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences at Aberystwyth University, researchers found that fist bumps are 20 times more hygienic than handshakes and 10 times cleaner than high-fives; several factors were taken into consideration, such as contact area, duration and pressure of the handshake.
Even before these findings, it was reported in 2012 that many Brits were doing away with the handshake in informal settings opting instead (at least when greeting the opposite sex), for a casual hug or peck on the cheek. Some found the handshake ‘too formal’, others (significantly, men) believed it was “an outdated display of masculinity”, while many felt it was unhygienic. One might begin to wonder how much more germs friendly hugs and cheek-kisses spread – and on that point there’s no consensus as of yet.
Handshakes have been around for a long time. However, if we’re being pragmatic, it no longer serves its original purpose of self-preservation, since today we are far more likely to be killed by germs than a knife-wielding assassin. Which begs the question – if our hands have been scientifically proven to be germ-laden petri dishes, is it time to actually consider retiring the humble handshake in favour of a decidedly more hygienic (and hipster) fist-bump? Who knows, maybe one day fist bumping will be the new handshake.
by Violet Koh