Handshakes began more than 2,500 years ago in ancient Greece. Originally, the gesture was less of a greeting and more of a way to prove that one was not carrying a weapon. An empty hand was a sign of peace. A handshake was a way of saying that you were unarmed. I apologize for any harm caused by that terrible pun …
In the Roman Empire, it became popular to grasp forearms and shake the sleeves to dislodge any hidden knives. Medieval knights also pumped hands in the attempt to shake free weapons from beneath someone’s armor.
Few of us today wear chain mail or carry daggers. Yet, we might be witnessing the death of the handshake as we have known it, for we fear attack from microscopic enemies. Studies have shown that avoiding handshake can reduce the transfer of bacteria by 90 percent. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, people were choosing other forms of greeting. In fact, five out of the five medical doctors at my church recommend the elbow bump!
As the calendar has turned to Thanksgiving, I’ve recently discovered an intangible benefit to the elbow bump. Lawrence Katz, the late neurobiologist at Duke University Medical Center, demonstrated how pairing a routine activity with something unexpected stimulates your brain. Katz called this “neurobics” because the brain gets a workout. Neurobics can strengthen memory and recall. It can even pump you up with positive feelings!
With this in mind, I’ve begun pairing the customary “Thank you” with an enthusiastic elbow bump. I’ve received a few strange looks, including from my own children. But most people have been pleasantly surprised.
After paying a barista for my cup of coffee, I thanked her and reached over the counter for the elbow bump. She laughed and returned the gesture. Walking away with my beverage, I heard her laugh again. The customer behind me had expressed his gratitude in the same fashion!
Maybe you miss the handshake and roll your eyes at the elbow bump. We could look at this form of greeting as yet another thing that is “not normal” because of the pandemic. Or, we could reframe our attitude and exercise our brains. On this holiday, we could bring new energy to the familiar words “Thank you.”
While handshakes developed as a means to prevent an attack, forms of greeting can be life-giving. Sometimes we need to shake things up a little in order to realize what we have to be grateful for. And such gratitude is — dare I say — infectious.
Andrew Taylor-Troutman is the pastor of Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church. His newly-published book is a collection of his columns for the Chatham News + Record titled “Hope Matters: Churchless Sermons.”
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