Stephen Bayley

Is it farewell to the handshake?

The universally recognised gesture of greeting can be traced to the ninth century BCE, says Ella Al-Shamahi. But Covid has put it in jeopardy

Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron shake hands at the Nato summit in Brussels, May 2017. Credit: Getty Images

Ella Al-Shamahi is a Brummie, born to a Yemeni Arab family. From a strict Muslim upbringing she transitioned (evidently con brio, as ‘dick’ appears in her new book) to the secular life. She is now an author, explorer, academic paleoanthropologist, stand-up comedian and television presenter. This is an impressive c.v., deserving many congratulatory handshakes.

But wait. Alas, the handshake has become taboo. Your hand, says the Mayo Clinic, is a lethal bio-weapon crawling with pathogens as yearning to contaminate as those scary airborne droplets. Your hand is a horror story. According to one calculation, a square centimetre of manual skin contains ten to the power of seven bacteria. Even the common cold virus survives on unwashed hands for up to three hours.

But while any discussion of the handshake’s past and future has special resonance in the era of the elbow bump and the ankle wiggle, Al-Shamahi’s beguiling book has a more general claim to attention than merely being an account of the crisis in manners that Covid has made. It’s in that pleasing genre of pop anthropology also occupied by, say, Angus Trumble’s 2004 book, A Brief History of the Smile.

I’ve never taken Graham Greene seriously since I was told his proferred hand was disgustingly soft and wet

The common wisdom that the handshake originated in the Middle Ages to demonstrate that the shaker did not have Chaucer’s ‘knife beneath the cloak’ is quickly disproved by Al-Shamahi. She has found a Mesopotamian relief from the ninth century BCE in the Iraq Museum in Baghdad looking very much like a hand-shaking ritual. There are, she says, references to handshakes in Homer. In fact, the hidden weapon theory is no older than an 1870 article in Harper’s. Meanwhile, in 1901, Leon Czolgosz approached President McKinley, inviting a shake with one hand, then shooting him with a gun cloaked in the other.

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