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The handshake is suddenly taboo

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The handshake is something many of us perform, some more often than others. It’s a common practice we haven’t thought much about until recently, when it took on new significance.

Wikipedia says “the handshake is commonly done upon meeting, greeting, parting, offering congratulations, expressing gratitude” or completing an agreement. “Its purpose is to convey trust, respect, balance and equality,” the website adds.

Different theories exist on the origin of the handshake. One version says it was “a gesture of peace in ancient times demonstrating the hand holds no weapon” — like a spear, crossbow or slingshot.

There are, of course, alternatives to the handshake. Many of us are old enough to have heard and understood terms like “gimme five” and “gimme some skin.” Those gestures later gave way to high-fives, fist bumps, elbow bumps and, more recently, leaping up and touching each other’s shoulders, backs, hips or behinds, often after a touchdown or poster-worthy dunk.

While we don’t see senior citizens performing that last one, it would be great if they did, either when greeting each other on the street or when waiting in line together at Bojangles’.

A handshake can sometimes turn into a hug, although it’s best to know whether the person you’re meeting is OK with that gesture. And kissing someone’s hand could technically be a handshake, but unless you belong to royalty or are a fan of classic movies, you are probably not into that.

These days, it’s not always easy to shake hands, as many people prefer walking around with smartphones in hand waiting for that next phone call or message.

Years ago while at a gathering, I noticed a friend across the room motioning for me to come over. It appeared urgent, so after pushing my way through the crowd, I reached him and asked what he wanted. He held out his hand and said, “I just wanted to shake your hand.”

Having just plowed through a crowd, I could have scolded him, but he was a friend, so I let it be.

Sometimes when I’m doing something with my hands like taking a photo, someone will come up to me and hold out a hand for me to shake. If I’m holding the camera with my right hand, I’ll extend my left hand instead, which has always worked fine. Still, I wonder if shaking someone’s right hand with my left hand makes it an official handshake.

Possibly the most insincere handshakes are the ones politicians perform as they run for office, promising to work honestly, steadfastly and sincerely on behalf of you, their constituent. But after an election, if we determine a politician failed to keep his promises, can we sue him for breach of handshake?

The ceremonial handshake, also called “shaking on it,” has long been recognized in legal and financial circles as sealing the deal and making an arrangement official. This idea probably goes back to our childhood when a playground wager like “betcha a million dollars” was not valid without a handshake.

When boxers stand in the ring preparing for battle, the referee gives instructions to both fighters to “shake hands and come out fighting.” But is a handshake an appropriate prelude to a beating?

The same could apply to football team captains who meet at midfield for the coin toss before the game. They shake hands too, but then return to their benches intent on bashing each other’s brains out when the game starts.

Amid the coronavirus outbreak, many have jumped on the bandwagon of not shaking hands, fearing contact could result in infection.

That’s fine, yet I assume these people are the same ones who go through each day trying to avoid contact with doorknobs, restroom fixtures, grocery store carts, bank machines, gasoline pumps, cafeteria tables and countless other germ sources.

Incidentally, I read that there are 2 million germs per square inch on a doorknob.

As for how all this plays out and affects future civilizations, I assume it means those wishing to become moms and dads should do what’s natural to make that happen while making damn sure they don’t shake hands in the process.

Keith Barnes is a reporter for the Johnstonian News. Reach him a kbarnes@johnstoniannews.com.

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