Greeting rituals are important in every culture. The handshake, for example, may be defined as the act of grasping and shaking a person’s hand, as when being introduced or agreeing a deal. According to some philosophers, the palm of the hand indicates who we really are deep inside and offering the open hand indicates one is being generous and magnanimous. The handshake is an exchange of energy between two people allowing the warm, reassuring touch we find essential for social interaction and harmony, a chance to communicate our true feelings.
In many parts of Europe and Latin America cheek kissing is the preferred method of greeting although the number of kisses and their placement varies from region to region. Elsewhere, facial rubbing like the traditional Maori hongi involves pressing one’s nose and forehead to another person to allow the ha (the breath of life or sharing of souls) to be exchanged.
The problem with all these actions is that they can help to transmit diseases. A recent editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggested banning the handshake from all health care settings. Instead, the authors recommended “infection-conscious alternatives” such as pressing one’s hands together as in Namaste which is widely used throughout Asia, a bow or a simple hand wave.
In many African countries it would normally be considered rude not to greet other people by shaking one or both hands warmly then often adding an embrace, much backslapping and even more flamboyant handshakes and high fives. However, in West Africa, the handshake – and traditional cheek-kissing in French-speaking regions – has come under scrutiny because of the fear of transmitting Ebola virus disease.
Ebola is spread by contact with body fluids so people shun any unnecessary contact with others. Liberia, one of the countries worst affected by Ebola, has its own distinctive handshake known as the finger snap. This involves clasping hands in the usual way then, as the hands are released, each person clicks the fingers of the other to produce two loud snapping sounds. The volume is important because the louder the snaps, the greater the declaration of friendship and respect between the participants.
However, the people of Liberia have now been advised not to shake hands at all. The loss of a traditional handshake and its sound may seem to be of small importance to the sick, the dying and their families where everyone struggles with even mundane chores like shopping or going to school safely. But the silence is noteworthy as a symbol of the disruption caused by Ebola while the return of the snapping sound would mark an end to the fear of contracting the disease.