Are the handshake and cheek-peck on their way out?

PAUL JOHNSON

Handshaking was not quotidian until modern times, and it usually had a definite significance, such as the sealing of a business agreement or bargain. It was a metaphor.

Queen Elizabeth I

I have been taking flu jabs since my 70th birthday and have escaped the pest entirely; I have had many fewer colds, too, though the jabs are not designed to prevent them. Am I safe from avian flu? I don't know. An expert I met recently says the pandemic will not occur if we act swiftly. His work, which included digging up a mass grave in Alaska and analysing the contents, has established that the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic (H1N1), which he thinks killed up to 100 million, was also avian. Two subsequent epidemics, the 1957 Asian flu (H2N2) and the 1968 Hong Kong flu (H3N2) were less lethal. But the present virus, he thinks, could be the Big One.

One social consequence I predict is that there will be less handshaking. This almost universal habit, a good example of globalisation, undoubtedly spreads highly infectious viruses and germs, especially colds, flu and gastroenteritis. You don't need to go as far as Walt Disney, who washed his hands up to thirty times an hour, but it is true most people don't wash them enough, especially before and after meals and going to the lavatory. Hands are always touching things and parts of the body which harbour deleterious minutiae.

Shaking hands is, in origin, a Western male habit, and the right hand is habitually used because that drew and held the sword. If you shook a man's hand he could not strike you under the fifth rib, as Shakespeare put it. So handshaking marked the point at which a truce took effect, a quarrel ended and a peace began. Nestor shook hands with Ulysses when he returned to camp with Rhesus's stolen horses, according to Homer. The Old Testament is punctuated by handshaking. In Chapter x of the Second Book of Kings, Jehu, after slaying 42 men 'at the pit of the shearing house', came across Jehonadab son of Rechab, and he saluted him, and said to him, 'Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart?' And Jehonadab answered, 'It is. If it be, give me thine hand. And he gave him his hand; and he took him up to him in his chariot.'

This snatch of Bronze Age macho conversation is paralleled by an Iron Age reference in 2 Maccabees xii 12, when Judas, having defeated 5,000 Arabs, 'granted them peace; whereupon they shook hands, and so they departed to their tents'. (Would that aggressive Arabs were as amenable to such methods today!) And we have Shakespeare imagining that, in Roman times, Antony, realising he has been betrayed, called out, 'Fortune and Antony part here; even here/ Do we shake hands.'


Shaking hands is, in origin, a Western male habit, and the right hand is habitually used because that drew and held the sword. If you shook a man's hand he could not strike you under the fifth rib, as Shakespeare put it. So handshaking marked the point at which a truce took effect, a quarrel ended and a peace began.


Actually, handshaking was not quotidian until modern times, and it usually had a definite significance, such as the sealing of a business agreement or bargain. It was a metaphor. It never took place across the class barriers. Queen Elizabeth I, on rare and much-remembered occasions, shook hands with a member of parliament who had happened to please her. This was quite a to-do, for it involved her taking off, slowly and lingeringly, one of her gloves. She liked to do this for, though not vain in general, she was proud of her hands, or 'dukes' as she called them, which were her best feature. The glove off, she extended her hand to be kissed, the MP knelt and then, if in a good mood, the Queen would use the hand to draw him to his feet: it was then that the handshaking might take place.

The elite did not shake hands with peasants or tradesmen or working men generally for very good reasons: such hands were seldom clean, and often had sores. Even in the early 19th century, for a lady to offer her hand to a social inferior to be shaken was a sign of generous condescension. When little Harriet Smith is first brought by her former headmistress, Mrs Goddard, to Hartfield, and entertained by Emma Woodhouse to a supper of minced chicken, scalloped oysters and home-baked apple tart, she is overwhelmed by her treatment: 'The humble, grateful little girl went off with highly gratified feelings, delighted with the affability with which Miss Woodhouse had treated her all the evening, and actually shaken hands with her at last!'

Among men, social handshaking was creeping in during the second half of the 18th century, and it took, as they say, a quantum leap, or shake, during the French Revolution, along with trousers and short, unwigged hair. It was much more common in America than in England.

One man who stood out against it till the end of his life was George Washington. He preferred to bow in the old-style English fashion. His critics, such as Adams and Jefferson, held it against him, and attributed it to his un-Republican monarchical spirit. Jefferson, who admired all things French, was a habitual handshaker, the first glad-hander in American politics. Personally, I think Washington was right, as he was in most things. He was six foot three inches tall, enormous in those days, and a well-executed, stately bow from him was worth a whirlwind of Jeffersonian pawing. Moreover, he had enormous hands -- Lafayette said they were the largest and most powerful he had ever seen -- and a shake by him, albeit involuntary, was apt to be bone-crushing. This he was anxious to spare the ladies at one of his wife Martha's evening receptions. So America's first president just bowed, and his fellow citizens had to lump it. If avian flu makes handshaking unfashionable, I imagine many politicians, on both sides of the Atlantic, will be mightily if silently relieved.

It may be that the promiscuous kissing on the cheek, which has become such a feature of our times, will dwindle too. In England it comes and goes anyway. The first great age of kissing occurred at the end of the 15th century. Erasmus, a man with a sad upbringing -- he was, like so many scholars then, the unloved child of an unfrocked priest and an escaped nun -- was delighted, on reaching London, to discover that in Sir Thomas More's circle you were positively expected to kiss the pretty daughters and wives of your hosts.

When I was an undergraduate, in 1946-9, the only people who kissed like that were royalty and debs, who kissed each other. The ex-debs at Miss Sprules Typing Academy in Oxford, whom I much preferred to the bluestockings of Somerville and Cherwell Edge, were great ones for what P.G. Wodehouse called smackeroos. But we didn't get them. The fashion, one of the last to spread downwards from the upper classes to the rabble (instead, as today, in the other direction), did not get going till the end of the Fifties. It spread in the Sixties like a pandemic. George Brown, in his glory as economic czar, which got him to many grand parties, used to say, in his cups, to society dames, 'One on each cheek and one in the middle.' He tried this with Princess Margaret and got another kind of smackeroo. The trouble with kissing, as with handshaking, is that you can't pick and choose. So I'm all for flu-terror driving both these demotic habits into desuetude.

 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Paul Johnson. "Are the handshake and cheek-peck on their way out?" The Spectator (November 15, 2005).

This article is from Paul Johnson's "And another thing" column for The Spectator and is reprinted with permission of the author.

THE AUTHOR

Paul Johnson, celebrated journalist and historian, is the author most recently of George Washington: The Founding Father. Among his other widely acclaimed books are A History of the American People, Modern Times, A History of the Jews, Intellectuals, Art: A New History, and The Quest for God: Personal Pilgrimage. He also produces brief surveys that slip into the pocket, such as his popular The Renaissance and Napoleon. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Spectator, and the Daily Telegraph. He lectures all over the world and lives in Notting Hill (London) and Somerset.

Copyright © 2005 Paul Johnson




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