Story at a glance

  • Health officials warn that handshakes can spread germs, including those that cause COVID-19.
  • People are trying alternative greetings to reduce physical contact.
  • When in doubt, smile and wave, says one expert.

With the current COVID-19 outbreak, how do you respond when someone offers a handshake? It can be a little awkward these days with many people worried about catching the coronavirus.

Handshakes are often seen as a vital part of a job interview and a way to respectfully greet clients, colleagues and customers.

The history of the handshake is believed to date back to the 5th century B.C. in Greece. It was seen as a symbol of peace, demonstrating that neither person was carrying a weapon.

There are many different forms of greetings around the world — from kisses on the cheek to bowing to even sticking one's tongue out as a cordial acknowledgement. Still, the handshake is often recognized as the most ubiquitous greeting globally.

But with concerns about COVID-19, go most places and you'll frequently hear people saying: "I would shake your hand, but…"

Greeting habits are quickly changing in consideration of others. What is the social and business protocol when you want to stay healthy but you don't want to be rude?

Corporate recruiter Roy Finchum, who is based in Virginia, says in general, he’s observed that it depends on a person’s comfort level. “I have seen some people start to elbow bump,” he says. “It’s a mixed bag, but when in doubt — smile and wave.”

Other workplace experts contacted by Changing America agree that positively acknowledging someone with a kind hello, along with a polite head nod and smile, is acceptable and on the increase.

In addition to the elbow bump Finchum mentioned, a footshake — tapping your shoes against someone else’s — is a creative way people are now greeting one another. Tanzanian President John Magufuli greeted politician Maalim Seif Sharif Hamad this way recently.

Dr. William Petri, an infectious disease expert at University of Virginia School of Medicine, says, “Handshakes are definitely out, and frequent handwashing and the use of hand disinfectants are in."

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI): “Handshakes have the potential to transmit infectious organisms directly between individuals.” A 2014 study suggests that a single handshake transfers 124 million live bacteria on average.

"Nearly twice as many bacteria were transferred during a handshake compared with a high five, whereas the fist bump consistently gave the lowest transmission," according to the study. After that study, the results encouraged the NCBI at that time to promote the fist bump as a more hygienic alternative when greeting others.

Not only is there more contact area in a handshake compared to the other methods of greetings, but the research showed duration and strength of the handshake also contributed to transmission levels. "Transmission is greater with increased duration and grip, which presumably increases the intimacy of association between hands."

However, with concerns about COVID-19, there is a growing movement for no physical contact at all. Some people are encouraging "namaste" as a respectful greeting, which proponents claim reduces transmission to zero.

A dictionary defines namaste as "a traditional Hindu greeting said with a hand gesture, in which the palms are pressed together at the chest or head accompanied by a slight bow or arm raise. It is commonly associated with yoga in the West." Proponents of the namaste greeting see this as a way to help reduce the transmission of coronavirus due to current worldwide health concerns.

Being cognizant of many people's preference to lessen physical contact for health reasons is currently on the rise.

For the safety and concern of current associates, many companies nationwide are now moving their interview process to virtual or phone interviews, observes corporate recruiter Finchum.

"I'm going to start online classes," says Slash Coleman, founder of Laughter Yoga Richmond, who is making some changes to give his class participants options. He will still hold in-person classes, too, but he's making adjustments. "To accommodate, my classes will be seated (versus more interactive physical contact) so there is less risk of infection," he says. Coleman, who is also an author, is publishing an article for Psychology Today about the importance of still maintaining positivity in life.

Jonathan Austin, a professional juggler from Virginia, agrees that happiness and human connections are important. Crowds of people are part of his daily life.  People love to greet him. "I do not mind shaking hands or hugs at all," he says, but he adds, "I am definitely doing more fist bumps. Knock on wood, in all of the years that I have been doing this, I have never had to cancel because I was sick. If I sense that someone does not want to shake hands, I will fist bump or bow," he says.

Jen Waine, a Virginia-based mindfulness coach who leads empowerment retreats for women, often includes activities that involve participants holding hands in a circle. In today's environment with concerns about the coronavirus, she offers this suggestion about holding hands: "Ask for consent first." She adds that the women participating in her group exercise all said yes. "They wanted the touch and connection."

Published on Mar 12, 2020