Commentary: After centuries of good use, will the trusted handshake ever return?

By Fred Mason
Posted 7/8/20

“It’s gone.” He said it so fast, and with such conviction and a little regret, it took me aback. My dear friend Bob, an elite athlete in high school and college, has had his fair …

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Commentary: After centuries of good use, will the trusted handshake ever return?

Posted

“It’s gone.” He said it so fast, and with such conviction and a little regret, it took me aback. My dear friend Bob, an elite athlete in high school and college, has had his fair share of reasons to celebrate. Teammates, coaches, friends, fans, family … all gave him congratulations over the years with a firm, yet now threatened, gesture.

It’s the gesture that the Greeks used in the 5th century B.C. to complete a transaction or show respect. The gesture used by a proud father to congratulate his son on his success, the one used by combatants to end wars, the one athletes offer after a tough game, the one business men and women use to seal a deal, or to end a spirited game of pickleball and a great round of golf.

It’s a gesture we have taken for granted and didn’t even think about its special meaning, until COVID-19, and now renewed racial unrest, have largely taken it away.

Not many human interactions have survived like this one through the centuries, through civil wars, world wars, past pandemics, territorial squabbles, political debates, religious persecution, cultural revolutions, civil rights unrest and a host of other human challenges. It’s been the world-wide symbolic gesture of peace, respect, friendship, understanding, and yes, even love. It’s survived it all and been a piece of our very being.

Yes, the handshake is on the chopping block. The gesture we’ve all come to know. The handshake, some say, is endangered, caught up in the confluence of disease and human chaos.

It’s been part of that first introduction to a romantic interest, the ultimate OK when a dad gives away his cherished daughter to her soon-to-be wedded husband, the congratulations on the birth of a child, when kids end a silly argument, or friends wish each other well. It’s been a natural part of our lives.

Now, its existence has been questioned, its obituary written. Some docs call it “unsanitary,” others suggest it’s downright dangerous! So, alternatives are considered.

Fist bumps are more common, elbow knocks are tried, ankle kicks are used (sometimes painfully!), and bows are taken, all to replace the gesture that has brought so much gratification. But, they don’t feel the same.

I, for one, surely hope it survives, as we need genuine human contact now more than ever. So patients can earnestly thank docs and nurses for helping them survive. So, heartfelt condolences can be communicated with a human touch at a wake or a funeral. When police and the community come together in understanding and respect. When family squabbles are settled. When our kids graduate, or when they find their first job. Or, when any other human moment needs to be memorialized and celebrated.

The handshake, hearty, firm, warm and heartfelt. I really miss it, and I’m guessing many of you do, too.

So here’s for the return of the handshake, perhaps once a vaccine makes us comfortable. It’s OK to be cautious, even scared. For some have highlighted the germs that may linger on our hands, which I’m guessing have been with us for centuries. So keep the handwipes nearby if you must, wash your hands if you can, but let’s not lose this gesture of goodwill, for it might be an antidote for our troubles.

I’m thinking of calling my good friend Bob, to tell him I hope it’ll be back. I believe it will. Maybe we’ll even bet a small wager. And hopefully soon, we’ll shake on it.

Fred Mason, a Barrington native now living in Rumford, is a retired public relations executive and lobbyist, who has shaken a lot of hands.

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.