All Shook Up


I have a memory, from when I was a very small boy, of my father teaching me how to shake hands. He made clear that it was an important and necessary step toward becoming a man.

A handshake was the method by which we introduced ourselves to strangers, acknowledged acquaintances, made agreements, expressed congratulations or condolences, offered thanks and generally showed respect. It must be firm but not aggressive, businesslike but not curt. Eye contact was essential.

The origins of the custom go back to ancient Greece, where we find several references in Homer, but they could go back much further. We know that handshaking was commonplace among the Romans.

Presumably, the open hand was extended to demonstrate the lack of a weapon, in a literal sense, and also to symbolize peacefulness and transparency. I’m not sure what the shaking part was about.

I’ve never asked them, but I doubt that my father ever gave a lesson in handshaking to my two sisters, and somehow I can’t picture my mother instructing them either. Women were not required to shake hands back then, but if a woman offered you her hand you were expected to grasp her fingers gently and briefly.

By the time I started making my way in the business world 20 years later, things had changed. The women’s movement encouraged women in business to expect to be treated the same as men, and that extended to the handshake. Some women went a little overboard with it, but that was all right. I chalked it up to the fact that they had missed my father’s instruction.

Some women also chose not to participate in the practice, for whatever reason. Perhaps they were making some sort of sociopolitical statement, or perhaps they just didn’t like people grabbing their hands.

At any rate, handshaking was the norm in business, until the world was turned upside-down approximately one year ago. At that point the Centers for Disease Control suggested that we use “other non-contact methods of greeting.” If you insist on touching you can use an elbow bump, which has to be about the most awkward human interaction yet devised.

Back in April of 2020 Dr. Anthony Fauci, upon whose wisdom we are totally dependent, said that we should never shake hands again. “Not only would it be good to prevent coronavirus disease, it probably would decrease instances of influenza dramatically in this country.”

That notion is not new. I am a lifelong tennis player, a sport like many others that has traditionally been concluded with a handshake. A half-dozen years ago, during the outbreak of a disease we have since forgotten about, the players in my circle of acquaintance adopted the fist bump as a more hygienic method of congratulating the winner and wishing each other well. It’s also used to acknowledge a particularly good shot by one’s partner, much in the manner of a high five.

Fist bumps are still direct contact though, so they are not acceptable conduct during the pandemic. Tennis players were quick to find an alternative that is not available to many athletes in other sports. We now touch rackets.

It took a little practice, because tennis rackets are very hard, somewhat brittle and quite expensive, but eventually we got the hang of it. Irrespective of Dr. Fauci, I doubt that we will ever go back to a more tactile gesture.

I play a lot of tennis, but I don’t suppose it will make much difference in my life whether we choose to shake hands or not. What we decide to do in business settings might be a little more consequential.

As a salesman, I certainly shook my share of hands. It was the standard opening and closing of every sales call, times the number of people I met on that call. I have no idea how many sales calls I made, but it’s been a lot of years since I left that life, so I guess I don’t need to figure out the new protocol.

Up until the pandemic, there was still one venue at which I shook hands on a large scale, one I am hoping to return to this year. That would be tradeshows.

Although I don’t know the exact number, I estimate that I attended approximately 150 tradeshows from 1978 to 2019. Most of them lasted about three days, and during an average day I guarantee that I shook at least 100 hands. That comes to 45,000 handshakes.

In a typical year, there are more than 9,000 business-to-business tradeshows in the United States, making it a $100 billion business. The total number of handshakes represented by those numbers is mind boggling.

2020 was not a typical year. Most of us had pretty severe problems in our businesses, of course, but the damage done by the pandemic was by no means evenly distributed. When you think about the sectors that were hit hardest, theaters, restaurants, airlines, hotels and cruise ships come to mind, but tradeshows would also be right up there.

It’s going to take many years to assess the seismic changes to our culture that were caused by the virus, but some of them are surely related to our giant experiment in proximity. Out of necessity we were forced to figure out which human endeavors could be carried out from a distance, and which could not.

Obviously, there are things that can only be experienced in person, like an airplane or cruise ship, and there are others that can be socially distanced (theoretically), like a theater or restaurant. Then there are the millions of office-based companies, like mine, that can completely separate all the employees from each other.

We did that, with each person at home on a computer, and one person in the office coordinating everyone. Did it work?

The short answer is yes. We produced quality products in a timely fashion. Everyone was conscientious and productive, and although people missed the interaction with colleagues, morale remained good.

That reflected the experience of most companies throughout the U.S., leading to speculation that the traditional office setting was gone forever. Why pay for costly office space, particularly in precious markets like Manhattan? Why create all the greenhouse gases, traffic jams and car crashes that result from millions of commuters?

We won’t know the long answer to all those questions for a long time, but I am of the strong opinion that physical interaction and collaboration are not just enjoyable but essential. A company with everyone distanced from each other is like an airplane on autopilot. It can fly all right, but it can’t really get anywhere.

I feel the same way about trade shows. I’m sure the virtual shows are very sophisticated and will suffice to fill the void for right now, but long-term I am betting on face-to-face meetings to make a comeback. When I think back on those 150 conventions, it’s the personal connections that really mattered.

Whenever in-person tradeshows return to the school supply industry, this company will attend. If you see me there, give me a fist bump.

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