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Lucia Kanter St Amour: Eulogy for the Handshake

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Some customs and ways of doing things are not going to survive the pandemic. Lucia Kanter St. Amour has this eulogy for shaking hands.

The handshake: it was our loyal and familiar anchor for millennia. It operated as a widespread social custom for political alliances, business mergers and telepathic fathers sizing up their daughter’s latest beau. Now rendered verboten by COVID-19, the handshake was at least 2,800 years old and, in some cultures, almost a contract.

Across many Western cultures, a handshake at the beginning of a negotiation has been an important tool to convey the willingness to cooperate. Neville Chamberlain’s infamous 1938 handshake with Adolf Hitler in Munich proved the gesture offers no guarantee that things can't then go terrible wrong. Still, it’s efficient, it’s personal and it gets things moving. Even before the pandemic, some may have already dismissed the custom as too medieval to be meaningful in the modern world. But remember the 161-day NBA lockout in 2011? It was finally resolved with a handshake deal one with billions of dollars at stake. At a deeper level, when people shook on a deal, they participated in an age-old tradition that exhorted them to behave honorably.

But, alas, coronavirus rendered the handshake taboo, even before shelter in place. Since then, Dr. Anthony Fauci sounded the death knell in April, when he proclaimed: “I don’t think we should ever shake hands again.”

Thus ends a millennia-old global standard. The void leaves us feeling, well . . . a bit empty-handed.


Other cultural customs have been abandoned (perhaps for good). As a person of Italian descent, I greet friends and family in Italy with a quick, alternating kiss on each cheek (called a bacetto). This custom dates back to the ancient Romans.

So what now? Do we place a hand over our heart to bookend our salutations and negotiations? In the Age of Zoom, how about a “handshake” button in our widgets? While I don’t have an “aha!” answer, I am confident we imaginative humans will evolve a new custom.

In the meantime, perhaps my Italian compatriots will bob from side to side while kissing the air from a 6-foot distance of course.

With a Perspective, I’m Lucia Kanter St. Amour.

Lucia Kanter St. Amour is a long-time Bay Area attorney, mediator, and philanthropist.

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