Covid-19 vs. The Handshake: Impact on Culture

Dr. Margaret Njeru
Senior Lecturer at Riara University, Nairobi

Culture is dynamic. It is always changing. As humans who belong to certain communities, we may be forgiven for thinking that practices that we term ‘cultural’ are natural and have always been. The foods we eat, the clothes we wear, the roles assigned to men and women, how we greet- all may seem culturally natural to a particular community of people. Yet, culture, far from being a natural way of life by a group of people, is largely a social construct by the people themselves. Culture is an amalgamation of conventions- traditions that have taken root within communities over centuries. For at a certain point in a people’s history, and for the convenient survival and identity of a particular community, man must have come up with what could be regarded as a ‘code of conduct’ for members of that community. This ‘code of conduct’ might go on uninterrupted for decades and even centuries, until a disruption arrives. And it is that disruption that the current pandemic- the Covid-19, seems to be bringing upon, specifically, the handshake (no political pun intended).

To curb the pandemic, health experts across the world have advised people to among other practices, avoid shaking hands. This would not be such a big deal were it not for the fact that the handshake is one of the most widely accepted form of greetings across world cultures. While there are many other forms of greetings including bowing, kneeling and hugging among others, the handshake is by far the most commonly used. In a video showing Prince Charles of Wales meeting some people as he arrives for the Prince’s Trust Awards in London on March 11, 2020, he automatically extends his hand to greet, only to quickly retract it and instead offer a ‘namaste’ greeting. The prince later tested positive for the virus.

Human behavior is learned and unlearned and extended avoidance of the handshake due to Covid-19 could ultimately lead to a major behavioral change in the way people greet. Already people have devised various interesting alternatives including elbow-to-elbow, fist to fist as well as foot-to-foot greetings. Is the handshake about to become a thing of the past? Time will tell.

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