A handful of manners, virus and disease

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 January, 2012, 12:00am


Say hello with your elbow

A polite greeting like, 'Pleased to meet you!', is almost always followed by a handshake. In business, when two people agree on a course of action, a handshake seals the deal.

The gesture is a very important part of polite behaviour and is done by millions of people all over the world each day. But leading disease experts have long suggested that the handshake can spread deadly diseases.

Nathan Wolfe, a virologist at Stanford University in the United States, suggests we keep our hands to ourselves and say 'hello' and 'it's a deal' using our elbows instead. But can the 'elbow touch' really replace the handshake?

The JFK Shake

John F. Kennedy (1917-1963), the American president, knew the importance of the gesture and even consulted experts on how to develop the most effective handshake. If your handshake is too soft, it means you are a bit insecure. If it is too strong and quick, it means you feel superior to the person you are shaking hands with.

All sorts of meanings can be read into the way you shake hands, and Kennedy wanted to get it right. Former US president George W. Bush was filmed wiping his hand after one handshaking session. He must have read a report on how germs are passed on by hand.

The origins of the shake

Why do we shake hands, anyway? It is rather silly, when you think about it. Nobody knows why we shake hands to greet others, make an agreement or say goodbye.

Perhaps the ancient equivalent of the handshake can be found in Europe. Centuries ago, knights and soldiers used to extend their hand to other knights and soldiers to show that they had no weapons hidden up their sleeves or behind their backs. This gesture conveyed friendship, non-aggression and openness. It is more or less the same with a modern handshake.

A doctor will shake a patient's hand to show trust and confidence. A businessman will shake hands to seal a big contract. We shake hands to be polite. Could current medical knowledge about how germs are spread bring an end to the handshake?

Please, wash your hands!

Medical research shows that if someone has a virus on their palm, it can be passed on when they shake hands.

Yet most virologists do not believe it is necessary to stop handshaking as long as people wash their hands regularly. Still, it is scary to think that a businessman or politician may shake hands with hundreds of strangers each day, passing on viruses. Perhaps the 'elbow touch' is not so silly.

Let's touch elbows!

Complete these sentences by choosing the correct word in brackets.

1. A person who studies germs is called a (ventriloquist / virologist).

2. Germs can be (shook / spread) from person to person during a handshake.

3. A doctor is showing (knowledge / trust) when he shakes hands with a patient.

4. The origins of the handshake are (unsure / undemanding).

5. Businessmen shake hands to (discuss / conclude) a deal.

6. A strong handshake indicates over- (confidence / friendliness).

7. Meeting others is an important part of a (businessman's / student's) day.


1. virologist, 2. spread, 3. trust, 4. unsure, 5. conclude, 6. over-confidence, 7. businessman's.