There is a great deal of good news in Ottawa’s recent end-of-year report on the H1N1 flu. But would you want to shake on it?
According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, most regions in the country now report either sporadic or no evidence of H1N1. Hospitalizations have been falling sharply since mid-November and the flu threat appears to be in rapid decline in Canada, as well as the rest of the world. While any death from disease is a tragedy, the toll of the flu seems substantially less than the worst-case scenarios initially presented. Whether this is due to overstated risks or sound public health management is unclear. What is obvious, however, is that the most significant impact of last year’s H1N1 flu scare is the threat it still poses to one of our oldest and most recognized public customs—shaking hands.
Across Canada, fear that hand-to-hand contact could spread the virus led to widespread bans on shaking hands. Most are still in effect today. At rinks around the country, time-honoured pre-game handshakes between youth hockey players have been abandoned. Some leagues have even forbidden glove taps. Many churches no longer greet visitors at the door on Sunday with a handshake. University convocations this past fall featured a variety of elbow smashes, knuckle touches and belly bumps in place of formal handshakes between school officials and graduates. When the Dalai Lama visited Memphis, Tenn., the mayor officially greeted him with a fist bump.
Having been branded as potentially dangerous by health officials and replaced with other gestures, can the handshake make its way back into fashion now that the hazard has passed?
Anthropologists tell us ritualized greetings are key components of all cultures. In Asia, it takes the form of a slight bow. In Europe, kisses on the cheek. In North America, the handshake. Firm or limp, warm or cold, it tells us a lot about the person we are meeting. A handshake forms our first introduction to strangers. It welcomes back old friends. And in the absence of paper and pen, it serves as a signed contract and bond.
The permanent disappearance of the handshake would represent a distinct loss of community and connection in everyday life. Without a way to greet opposing teammates, sporting events become less personal and more hostile. The same goes for other institutions and interactions. While fist bumps may seem like an amusing way to enliven dignified events such as graduations or church services, this replaces formality with irony. Can you imagine sealing a deal with an elbow smash?
Modern culture, and in particular electronic communications, have become sufficiently isolating and devoid of meaningful personal contact that we ought to resist any further social distancing. The handshake is worth hanging on to.
It seems unlikely health officials will ever publicly urge a reinstatement of handshakes. Thus it will be up to individual Canadians and their own common sense to bring them back into daily life as soon as possible. Put ’er there, pal.