New Perspectives: Senior Moment: “DOES HANDSHAKING HAVE A FUTURE?”

“When you extend your hand, you’re extending a bioweapon.”

Just when we began to dream of returning to some semblance of pre-pandemic life in time for the Holiday Season, along comes the potentially-scary Omicron variant. Must we continue to heed this graphic warning from Dr. Gregory Poland, an infectious disease specialist at the Mayo Clinic? (quote from Ellis Henican’s article in May19, 2020)

The custom of shaking hands has served several functions since the 9th century BCE when, according to anthropologists, it was first practiced as a ritual in Assyria. When encountering another man on the road, their clasping of right hands confirmed neither was carrying a weapon. (But according to Poland, it still cannot tell if the other person is carrying a germ.) Historically, handshaking has also served as the sign of a binding legal agreement between two parties. In more recent times, the practice is associated with good sportsmanship, After a hard-fought contest. the loser extends a hand to congratulate the victor.

The Australian image consultant, Clare Maxfield, has helpfully offered guidance for a proper handshake: “—firm, dry, connected at the webbing, lasts about three seconds.” ( This wisdom clearly identifies the many possible pitfalls lurking in a simple handshake. I speak from much experience, at times being on the receiving end and other occasions when I was the guilty party. Let’s examine Maxfield’s directions more closely, and only from the male perspective:

LIMP AS MONTH-OLD LETTUCE: I know the following will sound like it’s coming from just another angry old man but I am perturbed by the weakness of handshakes given by some of today’s male teens. In fact, when invited to do so, I have gently requested a re-do at which time they can easily apply more firmness to the ritual. Firm, not limp! I view this as a teachable moment.

WET AS A USED SPONGE: I hasten to say that I am not ridiculing nor judging sweaty palms. This is a well-documented symptom with a physiological or psychological origin, such as nervousness. Have you noticed how some people instinctively wipe their right hand on a leg before extending it in a greeting? While I have sympathy for those situations, I lack compassion for the behavior of some sullen young athletes who are obligated by their coach to shake hands with the winning team. On one memorable occasion, I expressed admiration for a losing basketball team’s sportsmanship as I watched them lining up to congratulate my son’s victorious squad. Only later did he confide that the sore losers each subtly spat into their hands before forming up for the post-game ritual. Make it dry, not wet!

MISSING THE WEBBING: Here I am at fault, especially in my shy earlier years. When I had to shake a hand, my body language reflected my innate passivity. I would tentatively extend my right arm—but not far enough. One embarrassing result was that I found the ends of my fingers helplessly trapped in the other person’s strong hand grip. He pumped the tips of my fingers up and down a few times, but my webbing (to use Maxfield’s delightful term) never made contact with the fleshy part of his hand. No manly web-to-web contact!

THE THREE SECOND RULE: Here I must take issue with the last of Maxfield’s dictums. While I can accept “three seconds” being a possible average for hand-to-hand contact, I have encountered exceptions to the rule. On seeing a long-time male friend pre-Covid, I have expanded the clutch to five seconds, perhaps letting my second hand join in the celebratory greeting or maybe even allow both arms to flow freely into a hug. Conversely, in this era of “overly-touchy” males being rightfully brought down by female victims, I now venture very cautiously into any male/female contact. I wait for the female to initiate a handshake. Pre-pandemic, I commonly withdrew my hand after the briefest of connection.

A MINISTER’S HANDS: A clergyperson’s hands are two of her or his essential tools. Obviously, hands are active in the Communion Service for the breaking of bread and pouring of wine. They are folded in prayer and later raised in blessing as the church service ends. They turn Bible pages or lead congregational singing. But with the ritual of hand shaking, there is still more to consider.

It is the practice of most clergy to offer a handshake to each congregant as they leave the building. It can be tricky! One size handshake certainly does not fit all. I have learned to avoid squeezing the arthritic hands of older parishioners. I have learned to ensure that I give a hearty handshake to those who would appreciate my firmness and assume it reflects my strength of character.

I have learned not to grimace when receiving a crushing handshake from a farmer who has milked cows by hand most of his rural life. I have learned to be gracious when offered a hand which ten seconds earlier was blowing a nose or stifling a sneeze half way up the aisle.

More seriously, sometime a warm handshake on Sunday is the only physical contact with another human that a live-alone parishioner may have all week. Covid-created fist bumps or elbow touches just aren’t the same. Virtual church has met many needs during Covid, but cannot replicate the touch. Recent polling by Leger found that 57% of us would not invite an unvaccinated person into our home over the holidays.

During these next weeks, I wonder how many of us will be brave enough to decline a handshake from an unvaccinated visitor? Should you falter in your resolve, just remember Dr. Poland’s timely warning.