The humble handshake – cornerstone of civilized behavior, ancient gesture of greeting among friends and strangers alike – is in trouble.
Politicians are avoiding it. Church officials are worrying about it. Business people are wary of it.
Shaking hands is slowly being transformed from a friendly icebreaker into a potential vector of life-imperiling contagion – particularly during flu season, given the well-publicized shortage of flu vaccine in some parts of the country.
Item: The Roman Catholic Diocese of Metuchen, N.J., has advised parishioners that they have the option to smile, bow or wave instead of shaking hands with neighbors during the “Sign of Peace” portion of the Mass if they are concerned about contracting flu.
Shaking hands supposedly began as a way to show that you didn’t have a weapon in your hands. As it turns out, we do have a weapon in our hands: the flu virus. Human influenza viruses, the genetically mutated descendants of bird germs, are extremely clever and resilient little bugs. They can live on hands and on surfaces such as doorknobs, railings and computer keyboards for up to two hours.
Passed easily from person to person, they typically enter the body when a recipient touches his eyes, mouth or nose. Once inside, they explode, piling into cells like rampaging Vikings. After a short incubation period, an infected person ends up with “so much virus inside/ That her microscope slide/ Looks like a day at the zoo,” as Broadway tunesmith Frank Loesser put it.
Flu is an inconvenience for most, but deadly to some. About 36,000 people in the United States die every flu season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and more than 120,000 are hospitalized with symptoms. Vaccines and antiviral drugs have prevented worse numbers, but flu viruses are also notoriously creative, and mutate into new strains that defy human resistance every 20 years or so. The World Health Organization said last month that we’re overdue for our next pandemic-causing strain.
The apocalyptic “Spanish” flu of 1918-19 – it actually probably started in rural Kansas, according to historian John Barry – killed perhaps 50 million worldwide, making it the single deadliest human epidemic ever. Based on population growth since then, the equivalent death toll today would be around 170 million.
Despite limited understanding then of what caused the flu, there was widespread awareness that it spread by human contact, says Barry, author of the recent “The Great Influenza.” Some cities passed ordinances that outlawed shaking hands. That was only the beginning.
The flu was so terrifying, its killing power so swift, “that in some places almost all human contact stopped,” he says. He cites the eyewitness account of a medical student in Philadelphia: On the 12-mile drive to a hospital one evening, the young man counted just one other car moving on the streets of a city with 1.75 million inhabitants. In isolated locales where an outbreak had been reported, the fear was so raw that would-be rescuers let people starve rather than face exposure.
Item: Mark Cooper, the top elected official in Southbury, Conn., has declared that he won’t shake on any deals. Or on anything else until the flu season is over. Cooper said if anyone offers a hand, he’ll politely decline and give the person a brochure titled “Don’t Do the Flu,” with tips on how to stay healthy this winter. He says he wants to set an example by limiting his physical contact with people.
In an interview, Cooper says his declaration of handshake abstinence was initially aimed at his constituents, about a quarter of whom are over age 65 – one of the highest-risk groups for flu complications. “I go to a holiday event and I shake 300 hands,” says Cooper. “Those people are picking up food, and they’re shaking hands with each other. If you come into contact with someone like me in that context, you might want to think twice about shaking my hand.”
Cooper, a former public health official, says he was trying to make a larger point about hand hygiene. Since word of his handshake strike got out on Dec. 8, Cooper’s story has been contagious in the media. “People had fun with it,” he says. But, noting that the serious point often came through in media accounts, he adds: “Mission accomplished.”
This fall The Washington Post revealed that people in Congress had access to their own stash of flu vaccinations. Despite some talk-show demogogy about “special privileges,” medical experts pointed out it might be a public service to provide inoculations to Congress, given the amount of gripping and grinning they do with constituents each day.
Indeed, President Bush is in the middle of the traditional handshake season, pressing the flesh with thousands at holiday events, including the White House’s annual media reception (and we know firsthand how germy those guys are). The White House’s communications office wouldn’t say what, if any, precautions Bush takes. We do know, however, that Vice President Cheney sometimes rubbed his hands with sanitizing lotion after particularly vigorous handshaking sessions while campaigning.
Item: In Vermont, Bishop Kenneth Angell has urged 130 Catholic churches with 148,000 parishioners to abstain from shaking hands during Mass until Easter Sunday, prompting priests to suggest “flu-free” greetings. At one service in Brattleboro, worshippers waved and smiled at each other, although a few spouses pecked each other on the cheek …
Perhaps the most famous handshake phobic of the 20th century was Howard Hughes, the billionaire inventor-filmmaker-aviator- entrepreneur-playboy and drug addict. Today, we recognize Hughes’ bizarre behavior as a result of a cluster of mental illnesses, including obsessive-compulsive disorder, but in his time he was merely considered “eccentric” and, later, “reclusive.” In his declining years, Hughes – the subject of the new Martin Scorsese movie “The Aviator” – declined to shake hands, and insisted that any object passed to him be swathed in a tissue. He also bottled his urine and stored it in cupboards (which probably squelched the desire of visitors to shake hands with him, anyway).
Hughes’ germophobic contemporary may be real estate mogul and reality-TV caricature Donald Trump. In his 1997 book, “Trump: The Art of the Comeback,” Trump wrote, “To me the only good thing about the act of shaking hands prior to eating is that I tend to eat less.” During his short-lived 1999 run for president, Trump kept antiseptic wipes in his limousine and passed out little bottles of Purell hand sanitizer stamped with his campaign Web address. He told an NBC interviewer that year that he wouldn’t be doing much glad-handing on the campaign trail. “You catch colds,” he said, “you catch the flu, you catch this, you catch all sorts of things.”
Taken to extremes, handshake phobia could prefigure a revolution in social custom analogous to the way the outbreak of HIV/AIDs in the 1980s affected sexual practices. The standard American greeting would be forever altered. But to what? The alternatives might include bowing, curtsying, nodding, saluting, patting each other on the back, or hugging. Other cultures, of course, are already there. The Hindu namaste greeting (a composite of two words that means, roughly, I bend or incline toward you), for example, is simple, elegant and touchless: a slight bow with hands pressed together near the heart.
Or you could simply follow the CDC’s advice, which sounds suspiciously like what Mom and your kindergarten teacher told you years ago: Wash your hands frequently with soap and warm water. Don’t touch your eyes, nose and mouth unless your hands are clean. Stay home when you’re sick. Use a tissue when you sneeze. If you don’t have one, don’t sneeze into your hands — sneeze into the crook of your elbow instead.
Consider this anecdote: Many years ago, a young enthusiast supposedly rushed up to James Joyce and asked, “May I kiss the hand that wrote ‘Ulysses’?” Joyce allegedly replied: “No. It did lots of other things, too.”
Or this eeewwww-inducing factoid: The CDC estimates that one in three people don’t wash their hands after using the bathroom.
Try – just try – not to think about that next time you’re shaking hands.
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