Ritual with a psychological meaning: can we break the habit of shaking hands?

After more than two years of the pandemic, it is no longer a matter of course to shake hands in an encounter.

Ritual with a psychological meaning: can we break the habit of shaking hands?

After more than two years of the pandemic, it is no longer a matter of course to shake hands in an encounter. However, many people still have the impulse to do so, and some actually long for the handshake. Why?

Sometimes it's a very special moment, sometimes it's still unsure: Should I or not? The handshake is back - even though so many had actually declared it dead after just a few months of the pandemic. Namaste, elbow check and co still don't feel right after two years. The ritual is too deep - when the palms of the hands interlock, the fingers touch, the eyes meet. Why are we actually doing this?

Such a long cultural tradition doesn't even change in two years of a pandemic, says Martin Grunwald. He is a psychologist and heads the haptic research laboratory at the University of Leipzig. "Only through so-called full contact information do we assure ourselves that the other person really exists, is really there. You can't trust all the other senses so much." And finally, man is a so-called crouching mammal. "We grow up with a lot of physical interactions and are therefore dependent on physical contact with others." Especially now that a lot has only taken place online, the sense of touch longs for stimulation.

But even those who greet each other with their fists or elbows touch the others - only differently. Is not that enough? "It's a completely different body feeling, nothing warm, nothing soft. Very hard, bony," says Grunwald. Both are just compromises. The scientist finds it amazing that such compromises were sought at the beginning of the pandemic and that physical greeting rituals were not simply dispensed with completely. Socio-culturally, another meaning is ascribed to shaking hands. "It signals 'I come in peace' and 'I am unarmed,'" says Grunwald.

How deep the handshake ritual is for us is shown by situations that most people could not have imagined in their wildest dreams before the pandemic. One remembers the then Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Interior Minister Horst Seehofer. At a meeting in early March 2020, Seehofer apologetically raised his hands defensively when Merkel approached him with an outstretched hand. The chancellor immediately recognized what had recently become a bit of a mishap - withdrew her hand and they both laughed.

After a few months of Corona, British singer Ronan Keating complained: "I'm afraid we'll touch less, maybe there will be less warmth," said the pop star in July 2020. "A good handshake just means something."

Lo and behold: Even politicians - and even Britain's Queen Elizabeth - have shook hands again in recent weeks. Many people are familiar with the scene between Chancellor Olaf Scholz and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson from their everyday lives: one shakes hands, the other offers his fist in greeting. "To allow so much closeness is a risk." In fact, people don't necessarily need the handshake, but the greeting as a kind of sign of peace, says the behavioral biologist Imme Gerke.

And yet shaking hands, which many have been doing since childhood, is essential: "We have to be familiar with the gesture so that it can have its calming effect on us." What is well intentioned but strange can even appear threatening to others. "That's why the handshake is coming back. We're familiar with it. The more familiar, the more reassuring." Another gesture is particularly familiar in southern climes: kissing on the cheek. And although it brings even more closeness with it, and also seems downright adventurous in view of the risk of infection - this ritual is back too. The French have been greeting each other with "Bisous" for a long time, while the Italians are slowly but surely rediscovering their "Baci".

After a gap of two years, the handshake as a touch with new or loose acquaintances also seems almost intimate to many. Isn't that a lot of closeness? "That's exactly the point," says the expert. "Allowing so much closeness is a risk. If this risky situation ends well, we find it very pleasant. That's how social bonds are formed."

For one or the other it is a little too close - especially after two years of pondering about viruses, infections and distance. Those who "now find the shaking of hands strange have either always found it strange, but ignore it in their daily routine - or are not aware of the necessity and the function of the greeting," says Gerke. The behavioral biologist advises those to choose a different form of greeting and to practice it - around 30 times alone in front of the mirror - until it feels familiar.

Even if the needs are different - nobody can do it without touching it. "We adopt the environment through physical contact," explains Martin Grunwald. This is easy to observe with newborns, for example: "Everyone wants to hold a baby. That's how it is accepted in the family, in society." Shaking hands is always a channel of information, says Grunwald. "I feel the tension, the condition of the other."

(This article was first published on Saturday, May 21, 2022.)

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