Shaking Hands with the Enemy? Microbes, Networking, and Corporate Health
Introducing a Three-Part Series
(in collaboration with Fred Leveau)
A few years ago while traveling aboard a Cunard ship I attended a cocktail party somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic. Always an anthropologist, I was curious to see who else was drawn to this bygone mode of travel and to learn about the floating world’s operations. Aside from mingling, the gathering was meant to give guests a chance to meet the ship’s captain and officers. As we circulated through the entryway, the captain greeted each of us. Instinctively, I held out my hand when we made eye contact. “Ah, we don’t do that…thank you,” he breezily acknowledged. I bristled slightly. While I logically understood concerns about the spread of germs aboard the ship and regularly followed hand-washing and sanitizing protocols, I also felt that my friendly gesture had been squarely rejected.
I share this story because as mundane as the scenario is, it is the only time that I can remember someone refusing to shake my hand. My reaction of feeling taken aback speaks to the taken-for-granted nature of our most common hand greeting. It is a moment I will remember because it evoked a conflict between my logical mind and my emotional center; between the biology of germs and the culture of forging social connection.
In the years since, microbes and handshakes have become controversial topics. Donald Trump reportedly dislikes shaking hands and calls the practice “barbaric,” while others have offered the “fist bump” as a more hygienic alternative (BBC 2019; Kaplan 2014; Lombardi 2014). Recent novel disease outbreaks such as SARS and novel flu varieties, along with the resurgence of infectious diseases like Ebola, have fueled public alarm and public health responses. Microbes and the real threat of multiple antibiotic resistance are on our radar more than ever.
Rather than being an inconsequential story about the contained risk of norovirus and the common cold in the rarefied world of one ship, it points to pressing challenges about how we humans — through our singularly human knack for culture — can irrevocably shape our ecological surroundings. This matters because our cultural actions, no matter how simple, shape the conditions in which we must live. We are living in a time when aspects of our culture — even mundane ones like the handshake — are colliding with our biology and our ecology, sometimes in frightening ways (Smith 2002). I see this as a necessary opportunity for us to re-evaluate our practices and their impacts, starting here with the humble handshake.
In this three-part series, I take on these big questions in relation to the commonly performed handshake greeting in the context of the Western, and increasingly global, business world. First, I draw from the biocultural field of medical anthropology to explore how we (and pathogens) have merged onto our current “viral superhighway” in a way that is unprecedented in human history (Armelagos 1998). Pathogenic microorganisms have evolved alongside humans and in ways that are directly linked to patterns of residence, technological development, and travel in our present era of global business connectivity. I will lay out all of the biological ramifications of handshaking, from the touch itself to the inadvertent hand-sniffing that follows.
But the question of the handshake is as cultural and sensory as it is biological (Hillewaert 2016). In the second part, I will take a cross-cultural and historical perspective to look at some of the ways touch greetings are practiced in the world and how the handshake has become the dominant form of Western professional greeting and symbol of trust. In the final installment, I will synthesize these bodies of thought to draw out their implications for our human future. Ultimately, I make a case urging the global business community to take the lead in exploring new, and indeed more adaptive, ways of forging bonds of goodwill and trust.
Armelagos, G.J. (1998). The Viral Superhighway. The Sciences, Jan/Feb 1998: 24–29.
BBC. (2019, March 5). The ancient story of the modern handshake. https://www.bbc.com/ideas/videos/the-ancient-story-of-the-modern-handshake/p072n8wn
Duranti, A. (1992). Language and bodies in social space: Samoan ceremonial greetings. American Anthropologist, 94(3): 657–691.
Hillewaert, S. (2016). Tactics and tactility: a sensory semiotics of handshakes in coastal Kenya. American Anthropologist, 118(1): 49–66.
Kaplan, K. (2014, July 28). Fist bumps, high-fives spread fewer germs than handshakes, study says. Retrieved from https://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-fist-bump-handshake-germs-20140728-story.html
Lombardi, L. (2014, August 6). Attention Germaphobes: A Less Icky Alternative to the Handshake. Retrieved from https://abcnews.go.com/Health/attention-germaphobes-icky-alternative-handshak/story?id=24854753
Smith, E.O. (2002). When Culture and Biology Collide: Why We Are Stressed, Depressed, and Self-Obsessed. Rutgers, NJ: Rutgers University Press.