January 23rd, 2021

Reconsidering the handshake

By Lethbridge Herald Opinon on March 12, 2020.

In view of

COVID-19 concerns, handshaking alternatives might

be prudent

Austin Mardon, et al

With flu season in full swing and the spread of COVID-19 becoming more prevalent globally, preventing the spread of the virus has been at the front of everyone’s mind.

One of the most significant ways the virus persists is through exposure in public domains, like businesses. Consequently, it may be time to address one of the most fundamental traditions in business: handshaking – the proper way to greet someone and indicate mutual respect and acknowledgement.

But shouldn’t handshaking be fine as long as everyone just washes their hands adequately? Maybe not:

P.A. Ghareeb et al. (2013) suggests that through hand-to-hand contact, “80 per cent of individuals retain some disease-causing bacteria after washing.” That means eight out of 10 people in a room have some sort of bacteria that can make someone sick.

Now imagine the sort of conference meeting where everyone shakes hands at the beginning before crowding around the snack table. A few pigs-in-a-blanket later, everyone in the room has now ingested harmful bacteria.

It begs the question: if handshaking is so effective in spreading diseases, what else can we do?

The Explorers Club, an American organization that promotes science and exploration, appears to have found an answer. During their upcoming annual gala, ECAD 2020, the organizers have decided that there will be no handshaking between the members to combat the spread of COVID-19. Instead, they shall bow with folded hands and say “Namaste” to each other.

This protocol prevents hand-to-hand contact, but one has to wonder if saying “Namaste” at an event in the U.S. infringes on cultural identity. Perhaps enough is said simply by maintaining eye contact and offering a smile.

We may also look to the rest of the world for inspiration. There is bowing in Asian countries, which is a compelling option. While some may doubt bowing’s effectiveness due to the widespread flu viruses currently in these nations, they should note that handshaking is prevalent in the business realm. More importantly, the spread of COVID-19 has more to do with the geographical distance – or lack thereof – between people. There are more people per area in Asia than here in Alberta.

That said, there is no shortage of alternatives to handshaking.

Cruise ship staff bump elbows as ways to avoid spreading viruses associated with sea travel. Fist bumping, as made famous by Howie Mandel, reduces the surface area in hand-to-hand contact, and we usually touch surfaces with our palms as opposed to fists. In American sign language, hello is a salute-type motion made an open palm against the forehead and raising slightly up to the side. Tipping a hat can indicate a greeting, or we can go back to even older Western traditions and curtsey/bow to one another for a formal address.

There are multiple ways that someone can greet others that still convey welcoming and respectful acknowledgement. Next time you meet someone, maybe try one of these alternative methods of greeting. We may start a new trend that is more expressive than a firm handshake and safer for society – not only in preventing the transmission of COVID-19, but the many bugs that also go around this time of year.


Ghareeb, P., Bourlai, T., Dutton, W. and McClellan, W. (2013). Reducing pathogen transmission in a hospital setting. Handshake versus fist bump: a pilot study. Journal of Hospital Infection, 85(4), pp.321-323.


Dr. Austin Mardon, CM, is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and Member of the Order of Canada. He may be one of the last Canadians to kiss the Pope’s ring in late fall 2019.

Catherine Mardon is a Recipient of the Papal Award, part of the Order of St. Sylvester, and an author.

Anuradha Rao is an Alberta-born-and-raised author and editor. She has a BA in English and a minor in Biological Science.

Riley Witiw is an MBA candidate at the University of Alberta and an author of the book, “Building and Maintaining Relationships with Mental Illness.”

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Seth Anthony

“Perhaps enough is said simply by maintaining eye contact and offering a smile”.

Well that was easy.