Shaking hands under Covid

On Wednesday I attended my first ‘social’ function since March 13th 2020, a press conference presenting a report prepared by a committee on economic recovery (chaired by Luc Godbout) for the City of Montreal.

It took place in the first floor the foyer of City Hall. There were maybe five journalists (camera and sound technicians), three sign-language interpreters, a handful of aids to Valérie Plante, and four of us on stage.

I arrived a few minutes early, and was directed by an aid to a room where the two other committee members sat. As I approached one got up and we were about to shake hands – when we both drew back and mumbled something about distancing. Then Mayor Valérie Plante entered. I stood up, made to shake hands – but again forestalled. We chatted for a few minutes, then went into the foyer, tip-toeing round everyone trying to maintain appropriate social distance.

After the conference, Mayor Plante took a few minutes to thank us: we smiled, bowed awkwardly, but could not close the encounter with the traditional handshake. Likewise, when I said goodbye to Luc Godbout and Raquel Fonseca, a timid wave was all I could offer to draw our meeting to a close.

This got me thinking about the importance and the role of handshakes. I can’t put my finger on it (!), but something major was missing from this meeting by the mere fact that we could not touch hands. What is it about shaking hands, putting one’s palm into the palm of an acquaintance or stranger, that ‘seals’ a greeting? I don’t know – but despite the physical proximity, and despite this being my first ‘real’ meeting with people (other than family) for weeks, it felt incomplete. I am now wondering it it ever actually happened!

There are no doubt cultural aspects to this: I was brought up in France where handshaking and “bises” are part of everyday life. Already when I moved to England I found the lack of casual physical contact during social encounters off-putting – yet handshaking was still a part of everyday business life. In Montreal, I clearly expect to shake hands when I meet someone because, now that it is not possible, I feel that the meetings are incomplete.

Still, the why and the wherefore of handshakes remains a mystery to me. They are another casualty of Covid 19, a minor one to be sure, but one I’ll be very happy to have back.

Published by Richard Shearmur

I am a professor at McGill's School of Urban Planning. I perform research on innovation, on how we locate work activities (in a world where people often work from many places), and on urban and regional economic geography. I used to work in real-estate, and teach a course on this. I am an urban planner, member of the Ordre des Urbanistes du Québec and of the Canadian institute of Planners.

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