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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Donna Van Natten demonstrates non-verbal, non-physical communication gestures in the studio at the Times Free Press on Monday, April 27, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Put her there, pal! Give me some skin!

Wait.

Put her where? Give you what? No thank you. Shaking hands is so, well, 2019.

With fear of spreading the coronavirus still on our minds, many people are reluctant to return to our hand-shaking, high-fiving, fist-bumping ways. Whether this is a permanent shift or merely a temporary suspension of a centuries-old custom remains to be seen. But until COVID-19 is contained and drugged into submission, it's a safe bet that people will look for alternatives to germ-spreading gestures that involve pressing the flesh.

According to history.com, the handshake has been around for centuries. What started perhaps as a shake-down to prove someone was unarmed in ancient times, the handshake eventually morphed into a paperless contract — a way to cement a binding agreement — and then into a casual greeting.

Donna Van Natten, a Chattanooga-based body language expert and author who does consulting work around the United States, says hand-shaking is ingrained in Western culture and it may take more than the COVID-19 pandemic to end the practice.

"I can't say for sure it will go away," she says. "People like to touch. As homo sapiens we are social creatures. We seek to be touched. It's how we attach from infancy. We want to touch each other for security, bonding."

Still, the idea of potentially passing or receiving a lethal disease through a handshake is enough to make people shake shy. Suddenly, everyone is looking for an alternative to handshakes in social and business settings. Just the thought of being arms-length away from another person feels a bit unsafe.

Van Natten, who has a doctorate in educational leadership, says it's natural for people to want to maintain a safe distance apart, depending on the circumstances.

"That's the animal in us," she says. "The closer you get, the more you could hurt me."

The handshake, Van Natten says, is a way two humans agree to build instant trust. It's also the way we form first impressions, she says, and strong handshakes, intentional eye contact and honest smiles have become signatures of self-confidence.

"We are attuned to sincerity," she says.

The hug, another common greeting gesture, is also on the wane. Van Natten recently visited her mother in a retirement community and they touched backs instead of the more common frontal hug as a safety measure.

So, at least for the time being, people are looking for handshake (and hug) alternatives, either adopting existing touch-free greetings already practiced by other cultures or inventing whole new ways of bonding. Toe taps, anyone?

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Alternatives to handshakes

Here are 10 alternatives to the common handshake that may — or may not — catch on in the age of coronavirus.

1. Praying hands/Namaste pose. People associate this gesture with peace, Van Natten says, and it works because we can relate to hand gestures. When held over the chest, a praying-hands pose suggests a heartfelt greeting, she says.

2. Bow. The bow is a common greeting worldwide, but it's executed differently in different cultures — sometimes a mere dip of the head and shoulders and sometimes a deep bend at the waist. "It's a very non-threatening gesture," Van Natten says. "It's saying, 'I'm present and you are present.' It's more than a friendly wave." Still, it's a deferential gesture, and may not work in America because of our egalitarian traditions, she says.

3. Hand over heart. This can either be a single-hand chest-pat, representing heartbeat, two hands held over the heart to express warmth, or a heart shape using both hands, signaling emotional connection. "You're telling the person that, 'I'm connecting at a heart level with you," Van Natten says.

4. Wave. From the vigorous wave of a happy child to the tick-tock motion of a member of the royal family, the wave is a universal greeting. "We like to see people's palms," Van Natten says. "It means they have nothing to hide." The wave is often paired with an enthusiastic verbal greeting. "There is authenticity when you say something, and the body follows (with a gesture)," she says.

5. Hand to the face. Whether tipping a hat, holding the cheeks (think Macaulay Culkin in "Home Alone"), or blowing kisses, hands-to-face gestures are easy to understand. But they do run afoul of the 'don't touch your face' guidance we've all heard.

6. Peace symbol or Vulcan peace symbol. Index and middle fingers held up with the palm out is a sign of peace. (Holding the palm out is a detail that matters a lot in some cultures where those two fingers can be rude if the palm is facing the gesturer.) The peace symbol once removed involves making a V-shape with the middle and ring fingers. The hand gesture, which not everyone can do, was popularized on the 1960s science fiction television series "Star Trek." It translates 'live long and prosper.' For non-Trekkers, a peace symbol might be a safer bet.

7. Toe tap. Like a handshake but tapping shoes, alternating left and right almost like a dance. While gaining popularity in other parts of the world, it takes balance and does not translate well in Western cultures, where hand gestures dominate, Van Natten says. It also may put people a little too close together for comfort in the age of the 6-foot social distance.

8. Elbow bump. Although it had its moment, the elbow bump is awkward. It's too easy to misconnect. Also, it requires close contact, like a handshake, which makes social distancing difficult. Too, we've been coached to sneeze into our elbows, so it may not be as germ-free as we think.

9. 'Sup nod: Quick backward flick of the head. Favored by teenage boys. It works for them, but don't let your head freeze in a backward tilt, which communicates menace.

10. Air high-fives and air fist-bumps: Just like the real thing, but with a flinch at the end. It's worth noting that even a fist bump that includes touch is 90 percent less dangerous, when it comes to passing germs, than a traditional handshake.

About Donna Van Natten

She was awarded a Japanese Fulbright Scholarship in graduate school and is also published in The Journal of Leadership Education. She is the founder, president, and CEO of Accountability Measures. Her professional memberships include the Chattanooga Women’s Leadership Institute and Women Mean Business in Tennessee. She resides with her family and their two cats in Chattanooga.

 

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