In Defense of the Handshake

Thank God it’s not dead

The entire pandemic, I’ve been hearing about things that Covid-19 may or may not have killed. Business travel. Buffets. Birthday candles. Snow days. I’m not sure all, or any, of these things are really going to go away: Human nature has a tendency to snap back to a certain base level of accepted normalcy, and I’m not sure one (incredibly tumultuous!) year is going to upset that applecart for centuries to come. And I hope not. Because I really love shaking hands.

Shaking hands was suppose to go away, wasn’t it? It’s strange that we remained — and in many ways still remain — so averse to that sort of human contact deep into the pandemic, even past the point when we understand that Covid-19 was a disease spread through the air, not through the hands. I suspect the reason for it was more psychological than physiological: We had grown so accustomed to being away from other people that touching them seemed unfathomable. The formal artifice of the handshake, or casually hugging strangers, was a relic, a timepiece from the age Before.

But I gotta say: One of the first things I did after being fully vaccinated was looking a friend in the eye and shake their goddamned hand. It felt great. It felt great.

I was raised in the Midwest, which I suspect helped lead to my affection for the handshake. My father is one of those dads who says things like, “You can tell a lot about a person by how they shake hands,” and while I’m not sure that’s true (I’ve had some pretty shady characters give excellent handshakes), I appreciate the idea behind it. A handshake is a small, shared moment between two people who may not know each other well but are eager to show that they are on the same page: That they will now be able, or at least willing, to talk to each other.

That’s what a handshake is, after all: A contract. It is not binding, no matter what a character in an old Western will tell you. But it’s an agreement, a temporary one, to hear the other person out. It is two people who were separate from each other, floating around the world, coming together to figure something out. It’s a welcome, a greeting, an invitation. It is not binding. It does not convey total companionship. It’s just a commiseration. It’s a way to say, ever briefly, “Come on in. Sit with me. Let us be together.” It is, in a pure form, sharing.

It can be done wrong. It can be done very wrong! Is there any wonder former President Trump was so bad at the handshake? It makes total sense that he would see the handshake as some sort of way to assert power or dominance. Only assholes shake hands like this.

The handshake is the commemoration of a moment, a way to connect with someone in a way that’s impossible to convey in words. It’s close, but not intimate. It’s physical, but only briefly. It’s open and hopeful, but only for as long as it needs to be. It is, at its core, a way to show another person that you are happy to see them and willing to hear them out. That strikes me as something we need in this moment perhaps more than ever before. I’m gonna shake every hand extended my way. I’ve missed handshakes. I’ve missed you. So put ‘er there, pal.

Writer, New York, NYT, MLB, WaPo, others. Founder, Deadspin. Author of five books, including “How Lucky,” in bookstores now. https://williamfleitch.substack.com

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