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Shaking off the handshake? Expert says its post-pandemic return is inevitable

It's been more than a year since we were asked to stop shaking hands — but have no fear, hand shakers. Paleoanthropologist and stand-up comic Ella Al-Shamahi argues the greeting will make a triumphant post-pandemic return because it's instinctual.

Author Ella Al-Shamahi says the handshake has a long history — even chimps shake hands

Handshakes will make an 'inevitable' return as the pandemic recedes says author, paleoanthropologist and stand-up comic Ella Al-Shamahi. (Daniel M Ernst/Shutterstock)

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began over a year ago, we've been physically distancing ourselves from others to avoid getting sick, but that also means we've stopped shaking hands.

For some people, it's a relief to no longer have to worry about germs. But when we don't shake hands, we are missing out on crucial chemical signals from others and we're avoiding a practice that has an extremely long history, says paleoanthropologist and stand-up comic Ella Al-Shamahi.
 
Al-Shamahi is the author of The Handshake: A Gripping History and spoke with The Sunday Magazine host Piya Chattopadhyay about why it's inevitable the handshake will make a comeback as the pandemic recedes. Here is part of their conversation.

I have to be honest with you, just from like a social perspective, handshaking can actually be kind of gross, right? So why shouldn't we use the opportunity of the pandemic ... to just kill the practice altogether?
 

There's two things. I get that a lot of people don't like handshakes. You know, that kind of physical contact, some people just aren't for it. Some people aren't very tactile, but it's just inevitable.

It's inevitable that the handshake will come back because history has shown us this, time and time again. There are some wonderful examples from history of the handshake completely dying out in Prescott, Ariz., during the Spanish flu. The handshake actually was made illegal in Philadelphia, at the end of the 1700s, there was a yellow fever outbreak and people shunned the handshake. 

Al-Shamahi is the author of The Handshake: A Gripping History. (Profile Books )

And my favourite example is in Baku, Azerbaijan, where there was a cholera outbreak at the end of the 1800s and people stopped shaking hands. They actually formed an anti-handshake society where they ... wore a pin.

You'd pay a few rubles if you forgot and you accidentally shook hands. And of course, in all of those cases, it came back. And so I kind of think the discussion is a bit mute and void ... in terms of whether it comes back or not.

Is that because it's cultural, like that it's a habit that we do, or is it more evolutionary? In other words, why do we even shake hands? What is the purpose?

I think something that is that ingrained — that just doesn't seem to want to die — you start asking questions. And you're right when you say, you know, it does actually transfer germs. 

This is some really gross statistics: 19 per cent of people worldwide don't wash their hands after number two. You know, when you think about that, a lot of people go, "Well, why are we shaking hands then? This is absolutely disgusting."

So then you've got to look to biology because it might be something stronger than culture. And you look at our closest living relatives, which are, of course, the chimpanzees and the bonobos, and guess what? They shake hands. In fact, Dr. Cat Hobaiter, who is a primatologist at St. Andrews University in Scotland, studied this handshake and she showed that not only do they shake hands, but that the meaning of the handshake is always positive and it's basically the same as the human handshake and meaning.

Chimps are our closest living relatives. They shake hands, we shake hands. You could suggest, couldn't you, that that is by descent and our last common ancestor ... was seven million years ago. So I'm suggesting that we've actually been shaking hands for at least seven million years and that, yes, the Neanderthals were shaking hands as well.

We may use handshakes as a way to smell people, says Al-Shamahi. She says it's common for people to smell their hands, even if they're not consciously aware they're doing it, after shaking hands. (Shutterstock)

You say that some humans actually do what some animals do after the handshake, which is sniff our hands after meeting someone for the first time, which really grossed me out in some ways. I don't think I've ever done that, but apparently you tell me we do.

There's this incredible research that people have done to chemosignals, so chemical signals, and people don't realize how important chemical signals are to human communication.

And it's kind of mad because I think we like to think that we communicate with each other via language and via sonnets, and ... actually, it turns out we also just smell each other. And that smelling each other is really, really important.

This is something really old and that it's not just a cultural thing.- Ella Al-Shamahi, paleoanthropologist and stand-up comic

They did these experiments where they put gauze under people's armpits, they got them to watch scary films or happy films, they took that gauze to a different bunch of participants, and guess what? They were accurately reflecting that emotion in their faces. So they did some more experiments and they showed that when people shake hands, you can actually transmit chemosignals.

Not just that, using hidden cameras, they showed that you are more likely to touch your face and take a sniff if you shake hands in a greeting than if you don't shake hands in a greeting. 

And in your writing, you tell a story about a young David Attenborough meeting an uncontacted tribe for the first time. Tell me what happened in that encounter.

Yes, this is absolutely wonderful. So uncontacted tribes for those who don't know, are tribes or Indigenous groups who have not had contact with the outside world. So they shun the outside world. And so you can assume that any practice they have isn't because of, you know, Google or because of TV being channelled in or missionaries or explorers turning up or oil prospectors. 

David Attenborough met this one tribe and he wanted to go a little way down the road and the tribe was saying, no, they don't want to go because there were some scary cannibals on the other side and they didn't want to go near them. And, you know, they were frightened. 

Tennis player Serena Williams of the United States shakes hands with Naomi Osaka of Japan at the Rogers Cup in 2019 in Toronto. Handshakes are customary in sporting events between competitors. ( Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

So he just decided he was going to go anyway because he was looking for birds of paradise. And as he's walking, this tribe starts running towards him with weapons, kind of screaming really, really loudly and like an Englishman ... he stuck his hand out and said, "Hello," and they stopped and shook his hand. 

And I was really intrigued by that story because I thought, you know what, I want to look into this a bit more and see if there's any other uncontacted tribes who are shaking hands. And actually, it turned out there was a whole pile in New Guinea. There's numerous reports of uncontacted tribes who knew what a handshake was before they were contacted. And so these uncontacted tribes were shaking hands. 

So, again, that suggests that this is something really old and that it's not just a cultural thing.

I was one of the people that was like, 'Hey, maybe I won't have to do this as often post-pandemic.' But you're telling me, 'Too bad Piya, you're back at it.'

I'm sorry, yeah. I mean, I think by all means, you can wear a pin and I'm sure people will respect your opinion, but I don't think you're going to win this one.


Written by Andrea Bellemare with files from Mouhamad Rachini. Produced by Jessica Linzey. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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