The Handshake and The Elbow Bump

I don’t know about you, but I didn’t realise how much I missed shaking hands. We’ve clearly been taking it for granted for years.

I’m a great one for shaking hands. Whenever I walk into a restaurant (pre-pandemic) I always shake the hand of the Maitre d’ as soon as I enter. Doing this has often got me a table in a crowded restaurant, even when I hadn’t booked. Going straight into a handshake, makes the Maitre d’ think that that you might be a regular customer looking for your regular table. (Try it, post-Covid, it works!)

I remember bumping into Julie Andrews at BAFTA once. Before I could stop myself, I stretched out my hand saying, ‘Forgive me, but I have to shake your hand’. She shook my hand and said very sweetly, ‘It’s alright, I understand.’ I remember doing exactly the same thing with Barrie Humphreys, when he was in full Dame Edna Everage garb. He shook my hand and said, ‘Well, young man, it’s something to tell the grandchildren isn’t it!’

Human beings have shaken hands for Millenia. The first recorded image of a handshake was in 9thCenury BC, when King Shalmaneser of Assyria sealed an agreement with a Babylonian King. Historically, a handshake showed that we were coming in peace, with no weapon. The up and down part of the shake was often used as a physical sign of agreement. And when we add in a second hand, the hand on hand, we share a more intimate greeting.

But in late 2020 we can’t shake, so when we greet someone, we’re faced with the awkward Covid Conundrum. We instinctively reach out to shake hands, then realise we shouldn’t. So, we laugh like embarrassed children. Then we attempt The Elbow Bump. I’m not a fan of this gesture. It reminds me of an old friend who used to punch me in the shoulder whenever we met up. He thought it was manly, but I always felt he was trying a bit too hard.

What is it about shaking hands that’s so effective? Of course, I’m discounting the two really uncomfortable versions here: The Limp Lettuce and The Bone Crusher. One is too apologetic and the other too demonstrative. But a perfect handshake is somewhere in the middle. It’s firm but not too firm. It’s a reassuring squeeze of humanity, combined with gentle eye contact and a smile, creating a brief moment of pure joy.

As we’re currently denied that particular moment of pure joy, what is the correct etiquette in current times? And what physical greeting will most build a human connection?

There are basically two options. We can go for The Namaste, with our hands in prayer position and a slight bow of the head. This genuine gesture is recognised all over the world, and is gaining popularity in the West, largely due to the growth of yoga classes. I use this greeting when in India, but it can feel a little self-conscious on a London side street. I favour the second option, The Hand on Heart. This is where you place your right hand over your heart, hold it there for a moment, maintaining eye contact, as if to say, ‘Heartfelt greetings, my dear friend’.

As we know, it’s the first few moments that establish connection. And it’s the same few moments that will determine how someone views us. If you haven’t read Malcom Gladwell’s brilliant book, Blink, about how we judge someone in the blink of an eye, it’s worth grabbing a copy.

And it’s not just the welcome gesture that’s important. How we say ‘Goodbye’ matters too.

I end most video conference calls with The Hand on Heart gesture. It’s a lasting reminder that despite the isolation we might feel, despite the technical nature of online communication, we can still metaphorically reach out and touch the heart of another human being. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s really all about, isn’t it?


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