Bryan Caplan  

The Virtual Handshake

A Quote that Should Have Been ... Global Competitiveness?...

I've been sick for almost three weeks now, and it's not fun. I make an effort not to infect the people around me, but unfortunately conventional etiquette gets in the way. You're supposed to shake people's hands, right?

My proposed substitute is the "virtual handshake." I explain that I'm sick, and suggest that we pretend to shake hands from two feet away. Sound good?

It does to other economists, confirming my view that we are models of good sense and common decency. But the rest of the world reacts poorly - so poorly that I've given up offering them my virtual hand in friendship.


Why can't we just switch to the virtual handshake on a permanent basis? Must we share our germs with everyone we meet?

If the virtual handshake won't fly, what else could we substitute? Japanese bowing strikes me as highly civilized, but even I'm not weird enough to start doing it unilaterally.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (18 to date)
Hollywood_Freaks writes:

We could just wave.

Mark Johnson writes:

Actually, as one possible kind of "virtual handshake", I recall that in
the movie Demolition Man, they didn't shake hands for real anymore, so
what they did was this: You would hold out your hand flat, palm facing
the other person, your hand in front of theirs roughly, and then you
would make a few circles in midair (i.e., in a plane parallel to that of
your body) with your hand. That's weird, but at least it kind of
resembles a wave. Just thought you might want to know.

Dennis Mangan writes:

Handshakes are fine; the key is not to bring hands to eyes, nose, or mouth after handshaking but before washing hands. The transfer of viruses from hands to mucus membranes is what causes colds. (Hope I'm not stating the bleeding obvious.)

Bruce G Charlton writes:

Sorry to hear you're sick.

You should live in England, where people don't touch much - I can go weeks without shaking anyone's hand.

daublin writes:

Actually, the touch is part of the meeting of two people. People touch. Among other things a handshake indicates to each other that you do not think they are lepers whose touch can kill.

ryan writes:

But, but ... if you shake hands virtually, how can I be sure you're not armed?

David N. Welton writes:

There's worse. I recall reading about a tribe in New Guinea (I think) whose men cupped one another's testicles as a sign of greeting. Hard to beat as a way of showing trust, I guess.

Max writes:

Even a lepers handshake does not kill, although people believed it in those times. Only continuous exposure to leper can infect other people.

But this aside, there is another medical reason for handshakes, they transfer germs! How silly this might sound, it is one of the things that keep your anti-body system prepared to deal with sicknesses.
If you hadn't been in contact with people from an early stage in your life, you would be rather easily infected by any kind of virus.

So, exchanging germs is not as bad as you might think :)

jb writes:


I must be a geek because the first thing I ever thought was the Vulcan split-finger "Live long, and prosper" greeting.

Which is also suitable for economists!

So Brian, if I ever see you - Live long, and prosper!

dearieme writes:

Och, just lift your kilt to them.

kedar writes:

The simplest and most respectful is to do "Namaste" as the Hindus do. Just greet each other from a distance joining your palms and raising them a little bit. Looks good too.

Renee writes:

well i feel a firm handshake is necessary when you meet an elder or someone of a professional buessiness. Its a matter of how cautious you are. Bring purel around with you and never tough your face. When it comes to familiar people you know there may just be an exchange of words or a nod. Germs are everywhere arnt they! your not going to be getting them just from peoples hands but railings and doors, etc.

Bethany writes:

I think that the vitual handshake could be a good thing. Americans today give germs and they do not even know it. There is no telling how many times a person shakes someone elses hand. Everytime they do then they spread whatever germs they have to that person. We are not as clean as we think that we are. The virtual handshake to me shows more respect to the person whom you are greeting. It shows that you have enough respect not to give them the germs you have.

Bob Knaus writes:

If we eliminate the handshake from American popular custom, how will I be able to instantly spot those who are obsessive about germs? My reaction to someone like that is not "What a considerate person!" but rather "I wonder what other aspects of their judgement are unbalanced?"

Clint Hennessee writes:

Yeah I must agree with you totally on this subject at hand. Infection is really serious these days when you don't even know what could be on the other persons hand. But, going back to morals which is alot of what America was founded on, "shaking hands is just part of life." Also, in order for it to change their will have to be something givin up like the good feeling you have when you shake someones hand after selling them your product or etc.

Rick Stewart writes:

I'm surprised Bryan has succumbed to the notion that germs 'cause' disease. Germs are there, here, everywhere, all the time. Perhaps they are slightly more concentrated on your hand if you happen to be sick, but they are not absent from your hand if you happen to be well.

I, for one, want to shake Bryan's hand when he is sick. I want to shake everyone's hand when they are sick. The exposure to a few germs my body's immune system has not yet developed resistance to will give me increased protection from sickness in the future.

Of course there are a few outlier diseases I do not want to come in close contact with (Black Plague springs to mind), but for the most part I benefit from exposure to other people's new, for me, germs.

This assumes I have kept myself in healthy shape through exercise, nutritious diet, sufficient sleep, etc.

By the way, I have averaged one cold or flu episode every 7 - 10 years, for the last 55 years.

Please, Bryan! Shake my hand!

Aftin Crowe writes:

You will get germs from every thing you touch in your every day life. You can not control how many germs you come in contact with every day most of them you don’t even realize are around you. I believe it is very important to shake someone’s hand for the first time you meet them because you can tell a lot about a person form just a hand shake.

Tanner M. writes:

Yea it sounds to me that we are a little afraid of germs. Germs are just a part of life, and how do you know that you got sick from shaking someones hand. You really dont know why or how you got sick, but I see this whole New hand shake thing as just weird lets just stick to what works. A good old fashion hand shake to seal the deal.

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