The world as we knew it will most definitely change if and when the threat of contracting the coronavirus slows down and we return to our daily lives. It’s too early to predict what exactly will be different, but it’s not a stretch to surmise the possibility that even the little things we don’t think about will become measures in caution.
Take the handshake. A staple of greetings from boardrooms to dinner parties, the handshake is as much a part of our interactions as flashing a thousand-watt smile, but there is no place for it in today’s world of social distancing.
Assuming the pandemic’s threat level dissipates, and we resume our lives, the handshake may prove to be a short-term casualty of the coronavirus.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, says he doesn't believe we should shake hands again at all.
“You say, what are the things you could still do and still approach normal? One of them is absolute compulsive hand-washing. The other is you don’t ever shake anybody’s hands,” he told the Wall Street Journal podcast.
Despite his pleas to stop shaking hands, Fauci isn't holding his breath for that to come to fruition.
"In a perfect world, when you're dealing with the potential for this terrible ordeal that we're going through right now, knowing that hands and hands to face do it, that would be something that I think would hopefully be attainable, but I don't think it will be," he told TODAY. "I said that somewhat serious and some not realizing that that likely will never happen."
Will the social behavior cease to be?
“I think initially people are going to be declining. I think this virus really raised people’s awareness of how these kinds of things spread and the risks associated with it,” Daniel Z. Lieberman, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., told TODAY.
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Lieberman believes that in the immediate future, anyone who attempts to offer a handshake is bound to be shunned.
“In some ways, the person who sticks out his hand is almost like a smoker. He is doing something that is currently socially forbidden,” he said.
So, that begs the question: What, if anything, will replace the handshake?
“I think you’ll still see a lot of people doing waves as we come out of this heightened era and especially out of this social distancing, you’ll still see a lot just waving hellos,” Lizzie Post, author, co-president and spokesperson for the Emily Post Institute, told TODAY.
Let’s not eulogize the handshake, though. Its extinction may not be on the horizon.
“I don’t think you’re going to see, at a really standard business meeting three or four years after we’re out of this, people doing elbow bumps, or a foot tap to say hello,” said Post, who co-hosts the "Awesome Etiquette" podcast and is the great-great-granddaughter of etiquette expert Emily Post.
The reminders we are getting daily about not getting too close to others run counter to our inherent need to touch. The handshake’s presence in our DNA offers something that is vital to our existence as human beings.
“When two people have skin-to-skin contact, it does things to the brain that nothing else does,” Lieberman said.
That contact, he added, “seems to promote the release of a brain hormone called oxytocin which orients us towards social relationships and probably has the effect of making the social bond stronger.”
And that has a domino effect.
“Social bonds support our mental health. They increase our happiness. They support our physical health and they also increase our prosperity. I don’t think we want to take away such a powerful tool when we’re no longer being faced with life or death consequences,” Lieberman said.
While things like fist bumps or knocking elbows can be employed, they lack the same ritualistic impact of shaking hands, according to Lieberman, even if they have a similar effect. Shaking hands may present an opportunity to make a connection that is unparalleled, even in a post-coronavirus world.
"Eventually the risk is going to go away and we’re going to get down to the old baseline of, well, you might increase the risk of catching a cold, possibly the flu, but at this point it’s no longer going to be a life-threatening act," Lieberman said. "And I would expect that people will go back to it when we reach that point.”
“I think that once we are allowed to do it, once we feel safe, once we see that gathering in spaces is again isn’t spreading a disease among all of us, I think that we will embrace it very quickly. I think we’ll be relieved,” Post said.
Until that time, though, maybe just give a wave.