Editor's Column: Flu scare may end hand shaking

Not having flu vaccine seems to be having one positive side effect — people seem less prone to participate in the curious old custom of hand shaking.

Last week I joined a group of six elderly individuals, none of whom showed any inclination toward shaking my hand. Maybe it was something I wrote, but probably not. I know from experience that the hand shaking instinct is so strong that it usually prevails over most emotions provoked by editors, such as dislike, disgust, hatred and absolute revulsion. Even armed men who go postal often shake the hands of their former bosses and co-workers before they exact their revenge.

But ever since the flu scare erupted, some doctors have been advising people not to shake hands in order to avoid the deadly flu bug. Shaking hands is one of the primary methods of germ transmission, right behind having someone cough into your face. Odd that coughing in a person’s face never caught on as a form of polite introduction, while hand shaking is forced upon us from an early age. Cultural anthropologists say the custom may have arose from males proving to one another they were unarmed, or perhaps they used to grab a mammoth bone simultaneously to show unity, and the bone fell away through the years leaving only the joined hands as a symbol of togetherness.

One would think that the custom would have expired once scientists discovered grotesque disease germs using hands for apartment buildings and freeways, but it has persisted over the centuries. People have learned to block out the thought of where that person’s right hand may have been just minutes before you shook it. The possibilities are too horrid to even contemplate.

The flu scare might lead to the phasing out of hand shaking. People might first carry a supply of sandwich bags in their pocket, and use one to cover the hand each time a hand shaking situation arises. Or they could go back to old-fashioned gloves, use disposable latex gloves, or simply spray the hand with antiseptic before and after shaking. These all carry a certain connotation of rudeness, however, so perhaps the elderly people I met were correct — don’t stand when someone enters the room, and don’t put out your paw — just say hello and “how about a cup of coffee?” I accepted the coffee, but wished I had a sandwich bag to grip the cup.

I respected the old folks for not even offering to shake hands out of the fear that my hand could kill them. It’s not always so easy. There are obsessive hand shakers out there who will stop at nothing to shake the targeted hand. You look at the offered hand, at the gleaming teeth and broad grin behind it, and can’t say no. It’s easier to shake the hand and then run to the bathroom to sterilize yous with a Bic lighter than to risk hurting the feelings of the obsessive shaker.

Now that the flu panic has hand shaking on the run, we should try to kill off the custom entirely. Some expensive TV commercials would do the trick, showing kids shaking hands with Dr. Diarrhea, old folks shaking hands with Dr. Death, and talking cartoon germs discussing what havoc they will wreak once the hand shaking begins. To fund the commercials, we can sue the worst hand shakers of all — our politicians.

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