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Jack Knox: Shaken by a handshake — the future of post-pandemic protocols

I shook someone’s hand this week. It felt like I cheated on my wife. Really, after a year and a half of self-conscious elbow bumps and sheepish head nods, it seemed wrong.
Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth, left, and Premier John Horgan greet one another with an elbow bump in Coquitlam in September 2020. Jack Knox wonders about the future state of greetings. [Darryl Dyck, The Canadian Press]

I shook someone’s hand this week. It felt like I cheated on my wife.

Really, after a year and a half of self-conscious elbow bumps and sheepish head nods, it seemed wrong.

Ridden with guilt, I confessed when I got home, trying to explain that my handshake kind of happened spontaneously, like that time you accidentally slept with your spouse’s best friend. “Baby, it didn’t mean anything,” I wheedled. “He stuck his hand out and I grabbed it by instinct.”

Alas, this explanation did not melt the frost. “Don’t tell me it didn’t mean anything when you come down with COVID,” she said. “Or the flu. Or adenoviral keratoconjunctivitis. Please tell me you were wearing a glove.”

I could only hang my head in shame — or perhaps, shamish, with an asterisk.

That is, we are now entering territory where right and wrong aren’t black and white. As restrictions ease we’re unsure which pandemic practices to keep and which to chuck away like a disposable mask with a busted elastic. I mean, I torched a car with Alberta licence plates on Friday, but somehow it no longer felt right.

Will we still need plexiglas? Floor arrows? Hand sanitizer? We’re supposed to keep physical distancing, though you may have noticed that for some six feet has already shrunk to the point that you now worry about buddy lifting your wallet at the checkout counter.

Note that some of the practices we have adopted are not COVID-specific. Some just come down to good hygiene. Proper handwashing, say, or staying home when sick. Dragging your sneezing, coughing carcass to work might once have made you Employee of the Month material (“It’s just a cold, boss”) but now it’s a firing offence. Likewise, don’t you dare attempt a dump-and-run at school with your feverish, snotty little Typhoid Mary. Those things are unlikely to change.

Less certain is the future of shared plates of food, everybody plunging their grubby mitts into the same plate of nachos, then licking the salsa and melted cheese off their fingers. Ditto for dunking buffalo wings in the communal blue cheese dip. Does that image leave you A) horrified or B) hungry?

What about the future of hugs? Even in pre-pandemic times hugging was like patting a stranger’s dog, something you didn’t want to do without first asking permission, not if you didn’t want to lose an arm. Still, people do like physical contact.

Which brings us back to handshakes. CNN recently quoted infectious diseases expert Dr. William Schaffner as saying he had no qualms about shaking hands with a vaccinated person, but wouldn’t do so with those whose status was unknown. What really made him wary was not so much the physical contact, but getting near enough to suck in their COVID-laden breath. “I think the real risk from hand shaking is coming so close to another person,” he said.

Of course, he was only speaking about the danger of contracting COVID, not other diseases. The latest edition of Esquire quoted a 2013 story in another magazine, The Atlantic, as saying up to 80 per cent of all infections are transmitted by hand — “it would be more sanitary to intertwine almost any other part of our bodies, apart from our lips or genitals.”

OK, but shaking hands is something built into our cultural DNA. It conveys respect, good manners, trust. “We didn’t need to sign a contract, we shook hands.” A firm shake is taken as a sign of strong character, whereas a limp one signals a limp personality and a crushing one is a red flag for doofusness (Donald Trump used handshakes as a psychological weapon, subjecting other world leaders to a vise-like grip, then hanging on like it was the last chopper out of ’Nam). It is considered the height of sportsmanship for hockey players who have spent seven games attempting to murder one another to line up for handshakes at the end of a playoff series — though some youth sports have, thanks to COVID, substituted a socially distanced walk-by, which frankly comes across as a bit passive-aggressive, more cat than dog.

That leads to the next question: what’s the alternative to the handshake? Fist bumps are a bit too bro. Touching elbows seems contrived (and aren’t those the same elbows we sneeze into?) Some suggest bowing while putting your hand over your heart, but that seems a tad intimate if all you’re trying to do is buy car insurance. Toe-to-toe tapping? Barf. A simple wave? Perhaps, but potentially fatal if you flash a gang sign by mistake.

For now, I remain shaken by my handshake.

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