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I am giving you permission not to shake hands with me (or anyone) right now. I’m not trying to stoke coronavirus paranoia, it just seems like this is a common sense measure at a time when nobody really knows how in the fuck all of this is going to play out.

And no, I’m not giving you permission to selectively not shake hands with certain people. (Because that, my friends, would make you an asshole.) What I mean is, let’s retire shaking hands across the board. At least for a while. After all, it’s a little bit of an archaic procedure, no? It was literally invented as a way to shake loose hidden weapons. Now I guess it’s a mainly litmus test for good etiquette and a firm grip? Okay.

Basically, not shaking hands is less about necessarily protecting yourself from getting sick (although that would be an added bonus) than it is about protecting others. As much as I’d like to believe the odds of contracting coronavirus are fairly low for most people, and that if they do, the symptoms may be mild and easy to recover from, some people are sitting ducks due to age and/or underlying health issues. 

Just the other day, my friend Tom (who’s in his seventies) said calmly but matter of factly, “I would likely not survive, because I have damaged lungs.” My mom, who has to use a prescription inhaler daily and do breathing treatments multiple times throughout the year, said the same thing about her odds of surviving coronavirus. It’s just a fact that there are people who are at more serious risk if exposed, and we should be keeping them in mind. (We probably know more of them than we think, since people tend not to parade these kinds of things around.) And we should also be keeping their families in mind, because it can be fucking stressful to feel like you’re potentially a walking Trojan Horse of germs.

I’m totally in support of everyone keeping calm and carrying on in the coming weeks and months, but it does make sense to opt for best practices when and where possible, right? And to me, living in a huge city where we’re opening doors and pushing buttons and taking public transit throughout the day, it just seems like the two easiest things to do to feel more in control are 1. wash hands more, 2. shake hands less. (I am trying not to touch my face, either, but goddamn.) 

If you’re worried about how it’ll look if you decline shaking hands, I saw it play out in action yesterday. And do you know what? People were understanding! The man who opted to forego formalities appeared to be in his sixties, and as soon as he arrived at an event I was attending, he politely put his hands up in the air and announced he wasn’t shaking hands. He didn’t make it a big thing, and he was perfectly friendly, and after he’d left the room, everyone around said things like, “Yeah, that’s probably really smart right now,” and “I actually have been wondering if it’s okay to do that!” 

Yes, it is 100% okay to do that, so long as you’re not using it as an opportunity to be an asshole. (Please don’t be an asshole.) I would honestly imagine the move would be met with more relief and/or understanding than hostility. (I could be wrong, but I think it’s a little absurd to get uppity about someone respectfully choosing not to shake hands.)

To be clear, this is not me saying that everyone should avoid all human interaction, going into permanent isolation in a fear cave. But when it comes to professional situations, or even celebrations (I’ve got a few weddings coming up), that people who might be immunocompromised (or related to people who are) may be attending specifically out of obligation, I just feel like it’s nice to take a step back from the formalities to lessen stress.

Essentially, the main reason I’m writing about this is so that the dialogue gets opened up a bit more, so that if someone says they don’t want to shake hands with you there’s no offense taken, and so that if you don’t want to shake hands with anyone right now you can feel less bad-weird about abstaining. I’m all for optimism, and for not succumbing to needless fear, but let’s also be smart, yeah? Sincerely, Megan Burns – at least one less person you have to feel obligated to shake hands with.