It’s only logical

Dr Eric Crampton
Insights Newsletter
6 March, 2020

Social norms can persist well past their use-by date because they can be so hard to change. Nobody wants to move first, lest they be considered the weirdo.

Fortunately for you, I’m happy being the weirdo.

It’s time to abandon the handshake and its even more grotesque cousin, the hug-and-kiss hello.

Handshakes have a history. Greek artwork from twenty-five hundred years ago depicts them. People speculate that the handshake originated as a credible demonstration that the right hand held no weapon: an open hand of friendship showed one was not an overt threat.

Times change. As Stephen Pinker points out, European murder rates were thirty times higher in the Middle Ages than presently so it is awfully unlikely that the person approaching for an introduction is about to stab you. The handshake is not needed.

Other threats seem more pressing.

Work published in 2014 in the American Journal of Infection Control showed that the average handshake transfers twice as much bacteria as a high-five. The authors noted that similar results were likely to apply for viruses.

And we are now on the verge of a new pandemic.

The offered hand, today, is not a mark of peace. It is rather an unintentional but real threat of harm. And I wonder about pandemic preparedness in companies in which senior executives still go for the handshake. If I were an active investor rather than a Kiwisaver I’d take it as a signal to short.

Fistbumps are clearly an improvement. They are only 20% as risky and could be a good alternative for those who, unlike me, are shy about being a bit rude. It’s easier for the person offering a handshake to shift to a fistbump – at least among cohorts young enough to recognise the gesture.

But surely we can find alternatives that forego hand-touching entirely.

There’s the “Ebola Handshake” – a bumping of elbows encouraged by the United Nations as alternative to handshakes during outbreaks of the virus in West Africa.

Iran’s Covid-19 outbreak has introduced a brand-new greeting: bump your right shoes together, then your left ones.

But there’s one I prefer to any of those. One that conveys exactly the right sentiment.

Put up your right hand. Split your index and middle fingers from the ring and pinkie fingers to make a wide V, with the thumb held out broadly.

Live Long and Prosper.

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