What happens when we can't shake hands any more?

What happens when we lose the handshake?

During and post Covid-19, we've been asked to avoid touching other people outside our bubble.

That, and being almost fanatical about cleaning our hands and social distancing, have put us in the enviable position of probably having the best results in the world for tackling the Covid-19 pandemic.

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But there may be downsides that we're not yet fully aware of. Let me backtrack for a moment.

Back in the 1970s in Romania, there were many orphanages caring for deprived children.
In general, they were adequately fed and clothed.

But they were starved of something else – physical touch.

Studies showed these children were half their expected height and weight for their age.

They were also socially underdeveloped and unable to build meaningful relationships.

More recently, in the United States, nurses working with premature babies have found that they develop faster when physically stimulated regularly.

Another series of studies compared preschool children in Paris, where kids touched one another a lot, with those in Miami where there was less touching.

Results showed the French children were less aggressive to others, both verbally and physically, than their US counterparts.

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And there have been many other studies which show how important "touch" is to our relationships, particularly how we feel about one another, both personal and in business.

One of the most common ways touch is used is to communicate – and we do that through the handshake.

At its most basic level, the handshake communicates trust, goodwill, or agreement with a common decision – for instance we often start and finish a conversation with others we are meeting, with a handshake as "bookends" to our discussion.

So what's happening to our important need for "touch" as a result of Covid?

It's suggested we "touch elbows", not really touching, or perhaps - more humorously -"touch feet", of course while maintaining our social distance.

In business we've been meeting via Zoom, Google, Skype and so on, where there is no hope of touching.

And when talking with a friend recently about handshakes, she put another spin on it when she said: "I think handshakes are really important to our culture as is the hongi, because they signify our preparedness to get along together."

I too am now a little worried that Covid may have some detrimental effects on our person-to-person relationships.

What's the answer?

I'm certainly not suggesting we break the rules and start handshaking again.

But there are two things we can do.

Firstly, and here I need to return to the research for a moment, we need to hug people in our bubble more often, particularly at the start and end of the day, and when they are facing an imminent challenge.

Why? The research has shown that hugging has a positive impact on our mental well-being by decreasing cortisol (the stress hormone) and increasing serotonin (antidepressant and anti-pain chemical).

So, more hugging please, in the bubble, of course.

Secondly, try using more "feeling" type words when meeting someone and when concluding the conversation. Feeling words, while not replacing physical touch, often describe touch.

For example, you might start with: "It's great to be able to meet face-to-face again and see one another in person – it feels really good."

You could also conclude with something along the lines of: "Great to meet up and touch base once again. Very much looking forward to the time we can really shake hands."


+ Bob Selden is the regional manager of Manawatū Family Business Central, which assists family businesses to grow their family and business capital.