There are few things in life more galling than the realisation that Donald Trump may have been correct. But the implausibly haired buffoon-tycoon, it seems, got at least one thing right: handshakes aren’t very good for you. Stopped clocks and all that.
Research by scientists at Aberystwyth University suggests that the handshake spreads germs. Rather a lot of germs – 10 times as many as the fist bump beloved of cricketers and teenagers. The researchers say that the fist bump might be preferable, especially if there’s a flu outbreak going on. This will no doubt come as wonderful news to Trump, who is on record calling handshaking “barbaric” because of its germ-transferring tendencies, adding: “One of the curses of American society is the simple act of shaking hands.”
For 3,000 years, we have been shaking hands. On the base of the throne of the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III, there is a bas-relief carving of the king meeting his Babylonian counterpart Marduk-zâkir-shumi in about 850 BC. The two great men are clasping each other’s hands in greeting, in a gesture immediately recognisable to anyone who has ever had a job interview.
In more recent centuries, since at least Victorian times, the humble handshake has been the greeting of choice for socially awkward English-speaking middle-class males, perhaps combined with a diffident “how do you do”. But latterly its reign has been challenged: by new, fancier handshakes, involving complicated new grips; by hugs, previously only appropriate for the emotionally incontinent members of the lower orders, and that strange species known as “women”; and, of course, by the aforementioned fist bump.
There may be a good public health case to be made about why the fist bump is superior to the handshake, from a spread of disease point of view. A colleague points out that it has other advantages – no deciding how hard to grip, none of that tricky co-ordination and timing (oh God, when someone grabs you around the fingers), no slick clammy palms. But surely I can’t be the only person who thinks: I’ll take my chances with E. coli or influenza if I can avoid being one of those guys who does that fist bump thing.
I know it has its own storied history; it seems to have come about for perfectly practical reasons first among boxers, and later bikers, who couldn’t shake hands – either because of the gloves or because of the reach between bikes – so bumped instead. (The St Louis Post-Dispatch claims that it was popularised by the late Stan “The Man” Musial, a baseball great of the Forties and, like Trump, a man who worried about the germs he’d pick up in his handshake-heavy life.) It is also associated with black US culture – Barack Obama and his wife do a version of it, which was somewhat unfortunately described as a “terrorist fist jab” on Fox News, and in his book Matterhorn, Karl Marlantes describes black Marines in Vietnam using the gesture.
But if I do it, I will not look like a US Marine. Nor will I look like a baseball great or a boxer. I will look like one of those awful upper-middle-class British men in late youth who think that they look cool because they have expropriated the trappings of American subcultures. I will look like I’m called Toby and wear red trousers, but long to be “street”. I will look like William Hague wearing a baseball cap.
And there is almost no level of health risk which I will not put up with to avoid the shame of being that guy. Yes, I know it’s shallow. Yes, I know it’s no better than teenagers who won’t wear bicycle helmets because it messes up their hair. But if it’s a straight choice between the faecal-oral transfer of potentially lethal pathogens and the fist bump, I’m afraid I’ve made my decision.