Whither (or Wither) the Handshake: Better Ways to Greet in the Age of the Virus

Why is shaking hands, especially now when a virus is spreading worldwide, still the accepted international greeting? Every winter, for about 30 years, I attended conferences and shook hundreds of hands. Every year, I got sick, although sometimes probably from air travel.

There are so many better was to offer a greeting than the handshake, which dates back to the 5th century BCE Greece as proof that neither party was carrying a dagger. The handshake was said to be de regueur in medieval Europe as a method knights used to shake loose hidden weapons. The usual command beginning our modern gladitorial sporting events is “shake hands and come out fighting.”

I also dislike handshakes as an expression of power by men who try to show their superiority by mashing my metacarpals, or the Trump-style handshake, trying to jerk a recipient’s arm from its socket.

The handshake is built on mistrust and power, not attitudes I wish to convey. I have always been uncomfortable with the double kiss, in all of its iterations, and as a stoic of Swedish extraction, hugs from strangers. Forget about the Maori or Inuit nose rub, or sticking my tongue out as they do in Tibet. I never got into the elbow bump, a ritual repeated every flu season, increasingly iffy now due to the practice of sneezing into it.

I find comfort and grace, not to mention safety, in Asian greetings.

The sweetest one is from Malaysia, bringing your hand to your heart, greeting someone “from the bottom of your heart.Sometimes you just lightly graze each other’s hand first.

Bows in Japan and China, convey respect, but their subtleties can convey many meanings including submissiveness.

A slight bow while pressing your hands together in prayer fashion originated in the Hindu Anjali Mudra, which means “I bow to the devine in you.” It is used throughout Asia. Namaste is the greeting in India and Nepal. Sawatdee, accompanied by the wai gesture, is used in Thailand, and Ayubowan, “may you live longer,” in Sri Lanka.

I know, the manner in which each is performed has its own cultural subtleties, but their origins, intentions and expressions are certainly more human and, in this day and age, healthy than the those of the sometimes defensive, violent and germy handshake.

Travel: Multiplying Peace and Understanding

Donald Trump’s careless, immoral immigration order is not only tragic for humanity but for travel, which promotes understanding and peace.

Shortly after the twin towers went down, I got an email from a National Geographic editor that a pending assignment for a story about an island in the Indian Ocean would not go forward. Exotic destinations were out, he said, Americans were turning inward.


Thanksgiving Cold Turkey: Heidelberg, Germany

Heidelberg Castle ©Russell Johnson
If you are over 18 you have probably spent some holiday season away from home. A few years ago I flew to Frankfurt, Germany the day before US Thanksgiving for a 1/2 hour business meeting. The meeting was a bust and alone, in a terrible mood on a bone-chilling afternoon, I boarded a train for Heidelberg, where the Student Prince was alive and quite drunk.


The Blessing of the Olives in Sonoma

Father Kelly Blesses the OlivesFather Kelly Blesses the Olives – Photo: Russell Johnson

There is a wee bit of Pat O’Brian, Bing Crosby and Spencer Tracy in Fr. Kelly, a cinema-ready Irish priest with a lilt in his voice and, if we are to believe his sermon last weekend, a fondness for olives and the gin Martinis into which they are dropped.

Certainly none of the evil Father Merrin, played by Max Von Sydow in The Exorcist.

Father Michael Kelly blessed the olives, exorcised them from bitterness, offered the cure Saturday at Mission San Francisco Solano in the town of Sonoma, the northernmost of California’s missions.