Look Ma! No Hands!

Woman doing Namaste sign

Is 2020 the year we ditch the handshake for a more germ-free greeting?

It’s what I was taught to do when you greet someone – you shake their hand, of course! After many years of practice, I think I give a pretty good handshake. I’m no weakling at this – I make sure I grasp the other person’s hand firmly. If I’m really excited to meet them (like if I were meeting Tom Hanks), I might even place my other hand on top of theirs to make sort of a “hand sandwich.” Too much touching? Possibly so.

The rapid spread of COVID-19 in other parts of the world has brought infection control to the forefront in a way I’ve never seen before! I’ve worked in public health for over 20 years, having endured both the SARS and H1N1 outbreaks, and the strict quarantine measures put in place by other countries are unprecedented. Here in Ontario, the risk of contracting COVID-19 remains low. This is encouraging, but it doesn’t mean we can be dismissive about it. We must be vigilant and mindful about our daily habits that may put us at risk for disease – whether it’s COVID-19, the flu, or even the common cold.

The COVID-19 virus is spread through infected droplets that come into contact with your nose or mouth. This could be from being near someone who is coughing or sneezing, or by touching a surface that is contaminated and then putting your hands on your face. The average person touches their face hundreds of times per day, so, it’s important that we think about what we’re doing with our hands.

Back to the handshake now – it seems this traditional practice may actually contribute to the transmission of disease. The world is getting it too: public officials are forgoing handshakes with their counterparts, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel having a handshake rejected by her country’s interior minister:

Closer to home, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Thunder Bay put out a statement discouraging handshaking during mass (among other infection control measures). We at TBDHU are also urging the public to find different ways to greet one another that don’t involve physical touching.

So, what are the options? Here are just a few fun alternatives to shaking hands:

  1. Smile and nod
  2. Pretend like your saluting or tipping your hat
  3. Take a bow

My personal favourite is the bow. There are a few variations here - put one hand over your heart, or do like what is common in Japan with hands at the sides, or in India with your hands together at the chest as if you’re about to say “Namaste.”

What about that awkward moment when someone offers you their hand and in your head your own thoughts are screaming at you, “NO! Don’t do it!” Do you reluctantly reciprocate so you don’t seem rude? Well, some say keeping your hands in your pockets (if you have them) may discourage the other person from offering a handshake to begin with. If their hand is already outstretched, you can politely respond with “Please forgive me, but I don’t shake hands.” Follow up with one of the suggestions above, or whatever you’re most comfortable with. It’s all about the tone and making them feel like it’s nothing personal against them. In this current climate, chances are the other person will understand.

If, in the moment, you buckle and shake hands anyway, just recognize that whatever was on their hands is now on yours. It’s best to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water or use hand sanitizer as soon as possible and avoid touching your face in the meantime. Regular handwashing is key, especially before touching food or anything that will go in your mouth, and after you’ve wiped your nose. If you cough or sneeze, aim for your sleeve to avoid contaminating your hands. If you’re ill, stay home. Your family, friends and co-workers will thank you.

Namaste everyone!

What are some other creative alternative ways to handshaking that you can think of!? Share in the comments below!