Karl Lindholm: Death of the handshake

MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE FOOTBALL players line up for the traditional handshake at the end of a recent game with Amherst College, signifying respect for one another’s mutual efforts. Photo courtesy of Middlebury College

BASKETBALL PLAYERS FROM Middlebury and Vergennes union high schools practice an ancient ritual at the conclusion of a game a few years back — they shake hands. Independent file photo/John S. McCright

“Shake hands and come out fighting.”

When I was a kid watching the Friday Night Fights with my dad (brought to you by Gillette — “to look sharp and to feel sharp too ...”), that’s what the referee instructed in the ring center before the boxing match began.

The combatants touched gloves and commenced to beat each other up, respectfully: after all, they had shaken hands, more or less.

Whenever there was contretemps in the school yard or playing field when I was growing up, the adult who broke up the fight commanded, “OK, shake hands now.” That meant it was over and there would be no further fighting between those two adversaries. 

A handshake was a promise. “OK, let’s shake on it.” To violate it would be dishonorable, dastardly: “We shook on it!”

Men my age, maybe younger too, remember the compulsory handshake talk with our dads. We were instructed how to do it: look the other person in the eye (“c’mon, eye contact!”) and grip the other person’s hand firmly, and shake. No dead fishes! — and then we practiced till our dads were satisfied we could do it right.

That was easier for our dads than the other required talk, the sex talk, and much less fraught. 

I learned early that the handshake was a sign of respect. To this day, when I meet someone for the first time, or after a long absence, we shake hands. It’s automatic. It’s an immediate and intimate connection, tactile, flesh to flesh, but formal, not sexual. It’s not a hug. 

A handshake is trust. Negotiations of a certain scale are often cemented with a handshake: a deal has been struck. A handshake connotes character and integrity. To betray the oath a handshake symbolizes means you are untrustworthy, a cheat, dishonorable: “I don’t need a piece of paper; your handshake is good enough.”

The origin of the handshake still applies, symbolically. Archeological remains provide evidence that the handshake was present as early as 500 BC. It was a gesture of peace, indicating that the hand did not hold a weapon. It is a disarming greeting.

Remember Elizabeth Warren at the end of one of the January debates shaking her head but not Bernie’s outstretched hand. She was upset, “Did you just call me a liar on national TV?” she demanded. No handshake for her.

(They eventually made up. Probably shook hands on it.)

In sports, the handshake is fundamental, de riguer, the coin of the realm, universal, historic, traditional, ubiquitous, a valuable relic. Individual athletes, teams, coaches shake hands at the beginning of contests and then at the end of the game — and during the game when a little connection is warranted. 

I love the handshake as a traditional expression of sportsmanship, those values of fair play, teamwork, and camaraderie that mark sports done right. In team sports, the handshake among team members are gestures of solidarity and mutual effort. “Good job,” the coach or someone else says, to a player, shaking their hand. 

In baseball and softball, the coaches meet at home plate and go over the ground rules, then shake hands, retreat to their dugouts, and the umpire shouts “Play Ball!

In football, the captains of opposing teams meet at mid-field for the coin toss to see who gets the ball first, they shake hands, and run exuberantly to join their teammates.

In basketball, opposing starting fives meet at center court, players align themselves, shake hands, the ref tosses the ball up for the opening tap, and it’s game on!

Rituals of this sort exist in all sports, more or less. What would a tennis match be without a handshake at the net at its conclusion?

I acknowledge that the handshake is more a male practice than a female thing. I consulted with the women authorities in my life, my wife and daughters. My daughter, the senior in college, says “not very often,” when I asked her about when she shakes hands with someone, “usually someone older.” 

My wife, the teacher, said, “mostly professionally.” My other daughter, the journalist, told me “I used to do a lot of handshaking (before COVID-19). I always shook the hands of guests on my show when we were in the same studio.”

Kelly Bevere, coach of the Middlebury College softball team wrote that the handshake “is commonplace in most sports, female included. I believe the handshake and the idea of ‘sportsmanship’ are intricately linked. The handshake at the end of a game reminds us that we always want to live up to that ideal, regardless of what just happened on the field.” 

Why this meditation on the handshake and its practice? 

Because it’s fated, under attack, perhaps doomed. 

None other than Dr. Anthony Fauci, to many the most esteemed man in America right now (and a really good high school basketball player years ago, a point guard, captain of his team), has called for the end of the handshake, and thinks, unequivocally, that will be a good thing.

“I don’t think we should ever shake hands again, to be honest with you,” Fauci said recently.

“Not only would it be good to prevent coronavirus disease — it probably would decrease instances of influenza dramatically in this country. We’ve got to break that custom.”

Of course, Dr. Fauci is right: the traditional handshake is a “perfect transmitter of germs and disease.”

There is a lively discussion online about what might replace the handshake: the fist bump, high five, giving dap are all offspring of the handshake, but they aren’t the same, nor is the Namaste gesture, the thumbs up, peace sign, or a jaunty little two-figured salute (I said two fingers!) all of which have been suggested. 

I will have a hard time if the handshake is on the way out, for health reasons. I understand, it has to be, but still it makes me sad. 

I will mourn its end. 

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