One of my earliest memories as a little boy is the way my dad would greet my brother and me when he returned home from work.
“Gimme a hot fish!” he would say. And each of us would give him a good, strong handshake — good and strong for a 5-year-old, anyway. A limp handshake, of course, was a cold fish.
I never thought to ask him where he got those nicknames. Maybe it was something from his own childhood, or maybe he just made it up on his own. Wherever they came from, they sure stuck with me.
The routine was excellent practice for the future. Even now, when I shake somebody’s hand, they get a hot fish.
Thirty years later, with two sons of my own, I showed them the difference between the two handshakes. And these days, when I shake hands with a bashful child, I sometimes show them the difference between a hot fish and cold fish. It’s important.
With that background, it has been interesting to read some of the coronavirus stories, in which people are calling for the elimination of the handshake as a greeting. The thinking is that since the hands are germ collectors, a handshake is one more way to transmit the virus.
I guess hands and germs do go well together. But until somebody comes up with a better form of a greeting, I prefer to keep the handshake.
It’s not a manly sign-of-respect thing, at least to me. It’s just something I was taught to do from an early age, and I find it an appropriate and comfortable gesture.
Besides, this elbow bumping thing that people have been doing while the virus is around is just weird. I’ve done it a few times when another person extends an elbow, but it is a poor substitute. I would rather just bow like the Japanese do.
Apparently I am a traditionalist, because I also don’t care for the fist-bumping thing that has become popular in recent years.
Several times in the last two months, upon meeting a friend, I have instinctively extended my right hand for a shake. More often than not, the other person declines. It doesn’t upset me at all, although it does show how the gesture has been drilled into me for half a century.
The handshake has a long and interesting history. I read years ago that it originated in the Middle Ages, when European men would grasp each other’s arm when they met to make sure they were not hiding a weapon.
But it is a lot older than that. I checked the Wikipedia website, which said there is an ancient Greek slab, from the 5th century B.C., that shows two soldiers shaking hands. The ancient Romans, a treacherous bunch who liked to hide daggers in their robes, used to grab each other’s arms as a precaution. And some Muslim scholars believe the handshake originated in Yemen.
Wikipedia put the description of a hot fish quite nicely:
“The handshake is commonly done upon meeting, greeting, parting, offering congratulations, expressing gratitude, or as a public sign of completing a business or diplomatic agreement. In sports or other competitive activities, it is also done as a sign of good sportsmanship. Its purpose is to convey trust, respect, balance and equality. If it is done to form an agreement, the agreement is not official until the hands are parted.”
Wikipedia also said handshakes are known to spread a number of “microbial pathogens,” which makes it sound like we are all wandering around in sewers and swamps. The site added that a medical study found that fist bumps and high fives spread fewer germs.
Handshake alternatives that have arisen in the last two months include the elbow bump and fist bump — both analyzed above — a “Roman salute,” which looks a little too Nazi-like for my taste; a foot-tapping gesture cleverly nicknamed the Wuhan Shake; and the non-contact namaste greeting that is used in Southeast Asia.
Of that group, the namaste seems like the best fit for me. I certainly am not doing any foot-tapping.
Thinking while writing, I may experiment with an informal salute when I meet or greet someone. There is no contact with the other person, and you can’t get any more respectful than a time-honored military gesture. It could be fun.
But taking the long view, eventually this virus will be under control and a thing of the past. Our world will return to a much more normal status.
I hope the hot fish returns with it, microbial pathogens and all. My dad would be pleased.