Mark Read is the Managing Director of WPP, a powerful global advertising agency, and now that he has reconnected with clients in an increasingly vaccinated business world, he happily shakes their hands.
“With people I don’t know, it’s an icebreaker,” he said last week. “The elbow thing is over for me for sure. “
Sir Douglas Flint, chairman of new fund manager Abrdn, has a more protected plan of attack for this new phase of volatile behavior at Covid.
“I’m certainly not walking into a room with my hand out,” he said. Instead, he prefers to wait and see what people are doing. “You more or less let them do the first move, then follow up a nanosecond later.”
After several days of deeply unscientific research, I have no idea which of these greeting strategies predominates. But I can report that, without a doubt, the thing is chaotic.
The uneven status of vaccination, along with very different opinions on what is safe behavior, has divided us into a bizarre mix of handshakes, nudges and punches.
The results, unfortunately, can be terrible. A man who lives in Germany and works with a friend of mine in London had a particularly difficult time during last month’s football match between England and Scotland at the European Cup.
As he wrote to my friend, “I met new friends at a bar. Everyone was banging their fists, so I did the same. Then another guy came in. I stuck out my fist and he came up with a handshake.
None of them reacted quickly enough, and the tensioner finally took advantage of good, long pressure. “So we stood there for a terribly long period of time, holding him and swinging my fist like a swivel joint.”
Unusual collisions between fists and handshakes are not limited to Germany. From Sydney to San Diego, I’m told they turn mundane intricacies into a painful game of scissors-paper-stone.
Things are looking particularly tough in the United States, where nearly 70% of adults have received at least one dose of the Covid vaccine, but 57% of Republicans believe the pandemic is over, compared to just 4% of Democrats.
A London-based American friend who just returned from a trip to both coasts of the United States was surprised to find handshakes and even hugs galore.
“There was a kind of pent-up desire to get things back to what they were,” he said. This is good if you are among those who are already fully vaccinated, but not if you are among, say, many under 40s in the UK who have not.
My friend said it was also evident that the older male bosses were “very much in handshake mode”, especially in areas like energy.
I still don’t know what role gender can play in all of this.
For every coworker who says he would find it great to trade handshakes and hugs – not to mention kisses – for bows, namaste, or just nothing, I know at least one man who agrees. This includes a colleague who met up at a recent business meeting where a well-known big boss opened the proceedings by shaking hands with everyone in attendance. My coworker was so shocked that he could barely stop himself from running to the bathroom to wash his hands.
I sympathize with him. But I’ve also found out lately that on the rare occasion that I meet a new person, some sort of muscular memory makes me reach out, after which I recoil, apologize and create general embarrassment for everyone.
Sadly, history suggests the pandemic won’t kill handshakes or any other tactile greetings.
As evolutionary biologist Ella Al-Shamahi writes in her recent book, The Handshake: A Gripping History [algo como “O aperto de mãos: uma história de agarrar”], this compliance has survived several efforts to ban it during recent outbreaks of cholera, influenza and others.
Since chimpanzees and isolated human tribes have similar gestures, she believes we can be genetically coded to wave our hands, perhaps by passing things like chemical smell signals to each other.
Researchers have found that people are more likely to sniff their hands after a handshake than when greeted without touching. “We primates crave touch,” she said. “And the touch of the elbow is a really bad handshake.”
Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves