Mark Read is the executive director of WPP, the power of global advertising, and now that he’s back to seeing customers in an increasingly vaccinated business world, he’s happily shaking hands.
“With people I don’t know, it’s a puzzle,” he told me last week. “The thing to the code is gone, of course for me.”
Sir Douglas Flint, chairman of the newly appointed Abrdn asset manager, has a more guarded plan of attack for this new unstable phase of Covid behavior.
“I’m not sure I go into a room and offer a hand,” he says. Instead, stop and wait to see what people prefer. “The guy let them make the first move and go a nanosecond behind them.”
After several days of deeply scientific research, I have no idea which of these two health strategies is more prevalent. But I can point out that, without a doubt, it’s exhausting outside.
The irregular state of vaccinations, more wildly divergent views on what appears to be safe behavior, has left us in a clumsy mix of shakers, bumpers and fists.
The results, alas, can be terrible. A German-based man working with a friend of mine in London had a particularly brutal time during last month’s England versus Scotland game at the Euros football tournament.
As he wrote to my friend: “I met some new friends at a bar. Everyone was punched, so I did the same. Then another guy came in. I stretched out my fist, and went for a handshake. “
No one reacted quickly enough and the rag turned out to be a good long shock. “So we’ve been here for a very exciting time, he’s just holding and shaking my outstretched arm strap like a ball and a socket joint.”
Reckless collisions between fists and locksmiths are not limited to Germany. From Sydney to San Diego, I’m told they’re transforming mundane opening pleasures into a painful game of scissors-paper-rock.
Things seem especially crowded in the United States, where nearly 70 percent of adults have had at least one Covid stroke, but 57 percent of Republicans think the pandemic is over, compared to only 4 percent of Democrats.
A London-based American friend who had just returned from a trip on the two American coasts was surprised to find handshakes and even hugs were plentiful.
“There was a kind of willingness to take things back to where they were before,” he said. It’s okay if you’re one of the completely vaccinated, but not if you’re among, say, the many under-40s in the UK who aren’t.
My friend said it was also evident that senior male leaders were “very much in the hands of shackles,” especially in sectors such as energy activity.
I’m not even sure what role sex can play here.
For any female colleague who says she would be happy to exchange handshakes and hugs – not to mention kisses – for bows, a namaste or nothing, I know at least one man who agrees. This includes a colleague who met at a recent business meeting where a famous bigwig opened proceedings by blatantly pumping the hands of everyone present. My colleague was so scared that I could hardly stop myself from going to the bathroom to wash my hands.
I sympathize with him. Yet I’ve also found lately that, on the rare occasions when I’ve met someone new, a sort of muscular memory has made me pull out my hand for a shock, after which I make a stupid excuse and create general embarrassment for everyone. .
Unfortunately, history suggests that the pandemic will not kill the handshake, or any other healthy touch.
As the evolutionary biologist, Ella Al-Shamahi, writes in her recent book, The Handshake: A Fascinating Story, health is surviving repeated efforts to ban it during past outbreaks of cholera, influenza and the like.
Since chimpanzees and the tribes of uncontacted humans have similar gestures, he thinks we may be genetically hard to shake, perhaps by delivering things like smell-related chemosignals.
Researchers have found that people are more likely to shake their hands after a handshake than if they are greeted without touch. “We’ve longed to touch,” she says. “And the elbow blow is really the poor man’s handshake.”