Tuesday, March 10, 2020


By AB Plum

When was the last time you shook hands?

BCVD? (Before the COVID-19)?

Even before this latest virus became pandemic, most of us shook hands almost reflexively. We meet new people, old friends, business acquaintances, our doctors and multitudes of others. Out come our right hands.

Before I broke the scaphoid bone in my right hand six months ago, I took pride in my firm, steady grip. My high-school debate coach drummed into us—especially the girls—how this non-verbal gesture gave us power before we ever spoke a word to make our case. Limp, half-hearted handshakes gave our opponents one up on us, he insisted.

And if we lost?

Since we'd probably meet our opponents in another debate, shake hands like a winner.

Other mammals don't shake hands. Since they generally have an olfactory sense superior to us, they sniff. Some anthropologists think sniffing led to handshaking. At least one study has shown that many of us after extending our hands in greeting, put a hand near our face.

C'mon, you say. Why not scratching our nose? Wiping our eyes? Clearing hair off our face?

Chemosensory signaling it's called and takes into account the above points but still theorizes "People constantly have a hand to their face ... and they modify their behavior after shaking hands." If you're interested in more science on the subject, check here.

Etiquette about duration, placement, who offers a hand first, too strong, too weak, men with men, men with women, different cultures, passing on viruses—all these factors and more lead to anxieties about shaking hands.

A few fun factoids about the history of this powerful body language:

When did handshaking begin?
No one knows for sure; the origins are murky.
Some claim handshakes came about to dislodge hidden weapons in the earliest times.
We have a visual depiction from the ninth century B.C. between an Assyrian and Babylonian ruler.
Homer refers to handshakes in both the Iliad and the Odyssey.
Ancient Greek funerary vases and gravestone showed handshakes.
Likewise, ancient Romans offered handshakes as signs of friendship and loyalty.
The Quakers may have influenced giving handshakes over bowing.
Victorians made the handshake popular with manuals on the etiquette of how, when and where.

What did one British Olympic Association's head doctor advise athletes about handshaking in 2012?
Don't … shake rivals' hands for fear of picking up a bug in the highly stressful environment of the games and having performance adversely affected.

How long was the handshake between Donald J. Trump and Kim Jong-Un last?
13 seconds.

What is the longest handshake recorded (according to Guinness World Record)?
10 hours. 

Why didn't George Washington shake hands?
He wasn't king, but he seemed to think nodding in public was a more appropriate behavior than the handshaking of "common" people.

What U.S. Presidential candidate studied how to shake hands?
John F. Kennedy—ever aware of those TV cameras.

What Presidential candidate gave his wife a fist bump at an election rally?
Barack Obama—a gesture greeted with plenty of negative comments from TV pundits.

Conundrums about shaking hands:

In mixed company, shake the women's hands first or not?
What about with "seniors"? Who initiates?
With children, shake their hands? At what age to begin?
What about holding hands or elbows afterward? For how long?
What is acceptable in lieu of a handshake? Fist bump? High-five? Wrist claps? Elbow bump?

Given handshakes are laboratories for germs, will they go the way of the albatross?


AB's next release, maybe in July, has several characters shaking hands. She's rethinking that body language since COVID-19 will be a part of the setting. The good news for her is that daily solitary walks require no social interaction. Not even with her alter ego, Barbara Plum.

Read the latest Ryn Davis mystery now available.

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