I Would Be Okay Doing Away with Handshakes

If there’s anything certain about the COVID-19 global pandemic, it’s that there will be uncertainty. There is a huge cloud of swirling COVID-related questions, with few of them having definitive answers. Instead, we must settle for informed guesses from experts.

Lingering COVID-related questions

Among just a few of the scientific questions, we are left to wonder how many people will become sick or die, how long we will have to wait for a vaccine, whether contracting the virus gives a person immunity, and how long any immunity will last. In addition to this, there are social questions that go beyond scientific theories.

What will be our "new normal"?

We don’t know what our “new normal” will look like once this pandemic is behind us. It’s possible that some habits and social norms will be forever changed. Among these, there is speculation as to whether we will return to handshakes as the typical behavior during introductions and greetings.

Thoughts on handshakes and COVID transmission

I’ve read varying opinions regarding this possibility. Some people feel that allowing the handshaking tradition to disappear is worthwhile in helping to prevent the spread of illnesses such as coronavirus, but also seasonal flu, stomach bugs, and the common cold.

Others believe this time-honored tradition is valuable in connecting humans, providing a literal “personal touch” to greetings, and should be continued. As a person living with rheumatoid arthritis/rheumatoid disease (RA/RD), I have a slightly different take on this issue.

Handshakes can be agonizing with RA

Having an incurable autoimmune disease that impacts the joints in my hands and wrists, handshakes can be agonizing. When I am in a flare and experiencing a steady, high level of pain, I often preempt a handshake by raising my hand in a slight wave.

Social expectations

However, there are some circumstances, such as job interviews or important meetings, when that doesn’t feel like a viable option. There are many times when I’ve tried to keep a smile plastered on my face through both the trepidation of reaching my aching hand out toward another and the increase in pain that comes with the applied pressure of the handshake.

Bonecrushing handshakes from others

There are other times when my hands are not particularly painful on a given day. I am able to do typical daily activities, and I am therefore not on guard the same way I am during a flare. With a care-free manner, I extend my hand to someone proffering their own. Then, to my sudden despair, it turns out the person utilizes a bone-crushing handshake style. My pain level can go from barely-noticeable to excruciating in about 0.3 seconds, and it is really difficult to maintain a poker face in these moments.

Being judged on handshakes

It’s frequently been said that you can tell a lot about a person by their handshake. It’s also been said that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. If I’m giving a loose handshake or avoiding one altogether, this may be taken as not having a forceful personality or being standoffish. Likewise, if I grimace while someone is unintentionally putting me in a lot of pain, this can impact perceptions of me.

Awkward social interactions due to handshakes

Furthermore, handshakes can be awkward aside from RA pain. For instance, my palms sometimes get clammy when I’m nervous, and the last thing I want to do when introducing myself to someone I’m anxious to meet is to give them a sweaty handshake. Before the arrival of COVID-19, there were times I didn’t want to shake someone’s hand because either they appeared to have a cold or I had one.

There was one occasion when I extended my hand to someone in a wheelchair, and she responded, “I can’t shake hands.” I hadn’t wanted to make assumptions, but in retrospect, I wished I’d held up my hand in a wave instead of holding it out to her. If handshakes were not the norm, the awkwardness and physical discomfort that can come with touching hands in greeting would be reduced.

A new form of standard in-person greetings

I do understand why a lot of people cherish the tradition of shaking hands. I am an affectionate person, and I love being able to make physical connections with others. For this reason, sheltering-in-place has left me missing the experience of hugging my loved ones who live outside my household.

However, as there are so many ways that handshakes can lead to transferring germs, awkwardness, and even physical pain, I would welcome the establishment of a new form of standard in-person greeting.

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