Let’s make the handshake history

Let’s make the handshake history

Terry Slevin and Jeremy Lasek

Many of our parents instilled in us the importance of a good, firm handshake to demonstrate confidence and respect.

It’s a greeting custom that dates way back to 5th century B.C, in Greece, as a symbol of peace, to show that neither person was carrying a weapon. Hundreds of years later, in the Roman era, the handshake was more of a forearm grab, as a means of checking neither had a knife hidden up their sleeve (Et tu, Brute?).

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Even before COVID-19 shook up our world, the handshake was already losing ground. In the United States, the cool kids (even President Trump) adopted the fist bump. One survey showed 49 percent of Americans sometimes chose the fist bump over a traditional handshake greeting. Many said they preferred lightly touching knuckles because they were afraid of catching “germs” by shaking hands.


Hello!! Enter COVID-19, and a whole new array of greeting gestures from the elbow bump (favoured by our PM Scott Morrison) to the awkward, slightly gawky (and risking an embarrassing over balance) foot tap. Neither of these can be achieved from a safe social distance though, and the dubious advice to cough and sneeze into our elbow and then use said elbow to greet people is perhaps even a bit symbolic of the chaos of coronavirus.

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The foot tap and the elbow bump 

As many Australians are emerging from lockdown and returning to workplaces, sporting activities and social meeting places, there’s a distinct nervousness and unease about how we greet our friends and colleagues after such a long time apart.

For most people, the traditional hug and kiss are certainly off-limits until further notice. Many months of public health warnings and 20-plus hand washes a day, together with the rigorous use of hand sanitizer, has put the humble handshake onto the back-burner, at least for the time being.

It raises the question. When will we start shaking hands again? And, perhaps more controversially, post-COVID, should the handshake be confined to history forever? Perhaps it is time the public health world helps champion the campaign to ‘halt the handshake’. But what’s next?

We can’t end a popular tradition dating back well over two thousand years without having an alternative greeting ready to roll out. Humans are both social and habit-following creatures keen to adhere to social norms.  But we figure there must be a common greeting being practiced somewhere in the world we could all easily adopt to help us quickly move on from the inevitable handshake hangover.

In New Zealand, the Maori greeting of touching noses will probably have to be put on hold until a COVID-19 vaccine is found. It is hard to imagine world leaders touching noses as a greeting before they line up in ill fitting, colourful shirts for their team photo at future global summits.

Another kiwi solution proposed by the New Zealand PM Jacinta Ardern is the “east coast wave”, a subtle upward flick of the chin with a slight eyebrow salute. Could work but do we want to hand everything to the kiwis?

Similarly, the Tibetan tradition of sticking out your tongue to welcome someone probably won’t pass the pub test (when they reopen without restrictions) in most countries.

In these ‘keep your distance’ days, let’s also put a line through the Ethiopian tradition where men touch shoulders, or in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where male friends touch foreheads. And that very European ‘air kiss’ on the cheeks has always been a bit hit and miss!


Sniffing faces may still be ok for loving couples, and for hundreds of years it’s been the traditional Inuit greeting in Greenland. It’s not dissimilar to what happens on the South Pacific island of Tuvalu, where pressing cheeks together and taking a deep breath has long been the Polynesian welcome for visitors. Coronavirus has probably snuffed out sniffing for the next year or two.

It’s unclear how the world will decide what new form of greeting should replace the handshake. Perhaps Australia, so often a leader and innovator in these matters of importance, can get the ball rolling by starting a national conversation. But we can’t rule out the prospect of some hitherto unheard of “social influencer” somewhere around the world, posting a video demonstrating the solution, that goes viral (digitally speaking of course). There are a few TikTok videos which could be candidates.

The four greeting options we’re putting forward for consideration – and hopefully for a national vote (at least a twitter vote) – can comfortably meet all social distancing requirements:

Clapping your hands: In Zimbabwe, the first-person claps once and the second person claps twice (please don’t ask who decides to go first,). In Mozambique, people also clap, but three times before they say ‘moni’ (hello).


Hand on heart: This is a slight variation on the existing greeting in Malaysia. Most people will be familiar with the action of sporting teams with hands on hearts, as they line up to sing (often very badly) their country’s national anthem before an international match.


The bow: This popular greeting in many Asian countries demonstrates respect and can be accompanied by the clasping of hands in front, pointing upwards in a prayer-like position. In Japan, a deeper bow represents a higher level of respect.


Thumbs up: It’s a supremely positive universal gesture and for an extra special greeting there could even be a double thumbs up.


Without a doubt this handshake replacement discussion and debate could create a greater controversy than the 1974 referendum to decide Australia’s national anthem.

And there’ll be some who believe we don’t need a new physical greeting gesture at all, given we have our own, much-loved verbal greeting; the simple Aussie G’DAY!

Header image: Chris Roussakis, Image 1: Evan Vucci, Image 2: Craig Lassig, Image 3: Christian Hartmann



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