Life After Handshakes

How will we welcome each other going forward? A spiritually minded guide to contact-free greetings.
The prana mudra gesture activates energy in the body and neutralizes anxiety. Photograph: Trunk Archive

By Dimitri Ehrlich

A lot of things are going to be different when this pandemic finally ends. Some things we thought had gone away (like drive-in movies) might get an unexpected second life. But some traditions will be harder to maintain. The casual hug or handshake, for example, may come to seem about as sanitary as making out with a stranger (and in terms of risk-to-reward ratio, a lot less fun).

People have already begun test-driving some alternative greetings; we can dismiss some as impractical, impersonal, or both. Tapping elbows or shoes doesn’t seem like it’s going to take off. Neither a bump of the elbow nor a tap of the foot has the warmth or natural tactile ergonomics of a handshake. After all, a handshake makes a certain amount of sense, physically: One palm fits nicely into another, forming an easy but chaste embrace.

From a wellness point of view, an affectionate greeting isn’t merely a feel-good act: Humans have a need to cuddle and hug and touch other humans, and science has begun to prove that a nice warm hug—or even a good handshake—can help release serotonin and boost levels of oxytocin, which have been linked to immune system improvement.

Handshakes actually don’t have such a warm and fuzzy derivation. Historically, men shook each others’ hands out of paranoia and mortal fear: It was a way of showing someone you weren’t holding a weapon (at least not in that hand, sucker!).

Of course there are many other gestures of salutation. When I was a kid, we spent summers on a farm near Woodstock, New York, and our house was semi-communal as we had a constant stream of visitors. There was a long gravel driveway and whenever our guests left to begin their drive home, we kids would run down the driveway to a break in the hedges—to a spot we’d dubbed “the peace place” (this was the late 1960s, after all)—and flash peace signs, while jumping up and down with irrational, groovy exuberance. At the time, with the Vietnam War raging, flashing a peace sign was also a way to signal you were down with the counterculture.

But while a peace sign is a nice way to say goodbye, it’s a little weird as a means of saying hello, unless you’re just passing someone without stopping and just want a low-calorie way to quickly acknowledge someone. As an emoji, it’s more like saying “hey” than “hi.”

In many countries across Asia (as well as in most parts of Malibu) people greet one another with folded hands. This gesture is shorthand for prostration, which literally means “I seek and admire the good qualities that you embody.”

Even a gesture as simple as folded hands can convey a range of nuanced meaning, and reflect an awareness of social hierarchy. For example, on a trip to Cambodia a few years ago, I pressed my hands together upon greeting a hotel concierge, who told me that I had my hands held too high. In Cambodia, you fold your hands in prayer position at your head when greeting a monk, at the throat level if you’re greeting a parent or teacher, and at the heart level if you are saying hello to a friend or social equal.

It’s not only in Asia that great attention is paid to the slightest details of hand gestures used for greetings and salutations. Wherever gangs exist, there also exists an elaborate system of gang signs involving various finger contortions, in which the wrong pinkie position can end up getting you murked.

Medieval knights used to greet one another by raising the visors on their helmets. Today, an echo of that gesture can be seen in a range of modern military salutes: British soldiers salute with their thumbs down and palms facing outward. The American military salute involves placing the thumb against one’s forehead and presenting the bladed edge of your hand at a 45 degree angle. The Polish salute is similar to the British salute, except you tuck in your thumb, ring finger and pinkie, only extending your middle and index fingers. There are also several highly stylized salutes used in kung fu, where one extends a fist and covers it with a palm. But all of these martial gestures may be a bit intense and formal for a casual greeting in a Starbucks.

If you’re the old-school sort you can always tip your hat. Upside: This is an elegant, classy way to greet someone, and will make you feel like buying whitewall tires or going to the 21 Club. Downside: Tipping your hat requires you to always wear a hat, and in some places, such as churches and nude beaches, this is not allowed.

More downsides: Bald men who wear baseball caps will be less inclined to say hello this way, as it means exposing their hairless domes. It’s also hard to tip your hat if you are wearing a wool ski cap, fez, beret or a yarmulke. (If you wear a cowboy hat or a fedora, don’t.)

If you are a lady who lives in a certain ZIP code, you can probably get away with air kisses. But it’s hard to air-kiss and maintain proper social distancing. Air kisses blown from 6 feet away run the risk of being carried off-target in a sudden gust of wind and you may inadvertently end up air-kissing the wrong person.

There’s no better way to say “live long and prosper” than the Vulcan salute from Star Trek. Leonard Nimoy, who played Dr. Spock and brought the gesture to millions of TV audiences, based it on an ancient Jewish blessing, in which the shape of the hand represents the Hebrew letter Shin, which has three upward strokes similar to the position of the thumb and fingers in the gesture, and symbolizes the name of God as well as the word “shalom” (which means hello, goodbye and peace all wrapped into one).

One other hand gesture with religious roots that people might consider is the hand of benediction. Traditionally used at the end of church services as a prayer and blessing, the hand of benediction isn’t a static salute; instead, it’s used to make the symbol of the cross—pointing up toward the father, down for the son, and then sweeping from left to right to indicate the holy spirit, and amen. While you may not technically be qualified to bless everyone you meet, think of it as a way of wishing someone well.

Mudras are symbolic hand gestures used in Hindu and Buddhist practice, and one—called the prana mudra—is strikingly similar to the hand of benediction, except that rather than make the sign of the cross you simply hold the hand position, breathe and relax. The practice is said to confer numerous benefits including increasing confidence and decreasing nervousness and fatigue—something we can all certainly use these days.

Anyone who has visited Hawaii or spent time with surfers has seen the pinkie-and-thumb salute known as “shaka,” which (like the word “aloha”) has several meanings, ranging from “hang loose” to “right on”—basically a reminder to slow down and relax.

If you are a little too buttoned-up to be a shaka bro, you can always revert to the simpler good old American thumbs-up gesture. This is a way of saying hello along with conveying a message of “job well done” or “everything’s OK.” But while the thumbs-up gesture is a sign of approval in most countries, be aware: in West Africa and the Middle East, it means “up yours!” (It’s used the same way we use the middle finger in America.)

The Maasai people, who live in Kenya and northern Tanzania, greet each other by spitting. In fact, they spit not only to bid farewell to a friend, but as a sign of respect, to clinch a bargain or to wish someone good luck. This seems unlikely to get an endorsement from Dr. Fauci.

Of course, we don’t necessarily need to make any physical gesture upon meeting someone. We could also just say “hi” and that would probably work just fine. But regardless of whether we ever get back to shaking hands, touch is important. It’s why we feel the impulse to hug and cuddle. It’s hardwired into our biology. Something as simple as a handshake also affects our biology in a good way. Every time we shake hands or hug another person, both of our microbiomes exchange bacteria, strengthening both immune systems.

If we’re losing all that, maybe at least we can begin to share more eye contact, and to remember that even when we’re practicing new forms of distancing, we’re not alone. When I was young, my mother had a piece of paper taped to our fridge that said: “In India, when we meet another person, we say ‘namaste,’ which means, ‘I honor the place in you of love, of light, and truth. I honor the place in you where—where you’re in that place in yourself and I am in that place in me—there’s only one of us.