By Anastasia Kaliabakos
During my college application process, I had to prepare for a slew of interviews. I remember doing some practice interviews with a “specialist” who told me that one of the most important things that leads to a successful interview is having a good and strong handshake. Therefore, I attempted to achieve the perfect middle ground handshake—not too tight a grip, but not a limp one either. I think I gave a pretty good handshake at all my interviews, if I do say so myself. And, surprisingly, that was a significant part of the interviews. Each handshake opened a different door. The initial physical connection can alert you to what type of person you may be dealing with: a firm handshake could indicate a confident person; an overly tight one could mean the person is a bit intense; a flacid shake may show the interviewer may not be as interested in being there as you are. A handshake also may be seen as a seal of trust—a type of “business deal” even. But where did this form of human connection first begin, and why is it worth writing and talking about?
It is acknowledged by historians that the handshake is a greeting custom that dates back to Ancient Greece—probably around the 5th century B.C. Initially, this practice, known as “Dexiosis” in English, which literally means offering one’s right—or “good”—hand in order to make amicable contact with another, was also meant to indicate that a person was not holding or concealing a weapon, making it safe to interact with and talk to them. In addition to being common in the everyday interactions of the Ancient Greeks, the handshake also grew in popularity in their artwork, such as amphoras, temple friezes, gravestones, and more. In fact, one of the oldest pieces of art depicting a handshake was found on an ancient sculpture from a funerary temple at the grave of Athenian poet Agathon and his brother Sosykrates. One of the reasons this gesture became so popular then and has now stood the test of time is that it suggested that the two parties shaking hands were equals in that moment. In fact, that is the main reason handshakes became a cultural stamp here in the United States. In the 18th century, the Quakers who settled in America popularized the handshake as a form of greeting. The quakers favored this method over the then-common bow, curtsy, or hat-tip because they believed that the handshake was more democratic, allowing for an egalitarian form of greeting that also offered both parties a sense of “fraternal equality.”
In the age of COVID-19 and social distancing, handshakes, as an intimate form of touch and contact, have somewhat lost their appeal. Back in April 2020, Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the leading medical experts on the Coronavirus, NIAID Director, and advisor on HIV and AIDS to six U.S. presidents, said that we may have to do away with handshakes altogether, or at least in the United States. “You don’t shake anybody’s hands… I don’t think we should ever shake hands ever again, to be honest with you. Not only would it be good to prevent Coronavirus disease; it would decrease instances of Influenza dramatically in this country.” For now, Dr. Fauci may be right—it is important to limit the spread of germs (and Coronavirus) by wearing masks, social distancing, and definitely refraining from shaking other people’s hands. However, Dr. Fauci was also a Classics major in college. Therefore, although his perspective as a physician and Infectious Disease Specialist may seem to favor abolishing this ancient (Greek) tradition, it is more than likely that he understands that feat is impossible. This custom has existed for thousands of years, and I am willing to bet that after the ultimate decline of Coronavirus, the handshake will make a comeback.