The Handshake Is on Hold
Myka Meier is an etiquette expert with more than 61,000 followers on Instagram. Strangers regularly approach her with questions about social and business protocol. But last Tuesday was something else.
Ms. Meier, 37, said she was approached eight or nine times at the Plaza Hotel in New York, in between the classes she regularly holds there, with some version of this question: “I don’t want to touch people — what do I do without being rude?”
“There were so many people coming up to me I had to go find a seat off to the side,” Ms. Meier said.
Later in the day she checked Instagram and found 70 new direct messages with similar queries. “I’m going to a work conference in Europe next week,” read one. “What’s the appropriate etiquette alternatives to avoid handshakes?”
As the new coronavirus spreads, leaders around the world are offering guidance about how to touch other humans going forward. Health ministers in Switzerland and France have asked citizens to forgo “la bise,” the two-kiss greeting. In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has encouraged a greeting of “namaste” instead of a handshake.
Upon news of a concentration of cases in New Rochelle, N.Y., the nearby Hebrew Institute of White Plains sent an email to congregants announcing the suspension of circle dancing and kissing the Torah.
And private citizens are adjusting their behavior with others, both casual and intimate.
Terrett Drake, 43, a market research executive in Manhattan, for example, has begun moving as far away as possible from people on the subway who seem unwell. “I am not freaking out, I am not wearing a mask, but I am thinking about the ways I touch strangers on a regular basis, and that maybe I should stop doing that until we know more about this virus,” he said. “An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure, right?”
While he will no longer shake hands with people he doesn’t know, Mr. Drake said he is continuing to hug those he does, acknowledging the illogic. “I don’t know why I still feel comfortable touching friends,” he said. “Maybe it’s a false sense of security? I am sure a stranger will give this to me if it happens.”
Mr. Drake is single and decided to temporarily take himself off dating apps, which he used largely for physical encounters. “Two or three days ago I was scrolling and was like, ‘I don’t want to stand next to strangers on the subway, why would I want to hook up with someone I’ve never met?’” he said. “There is no way to evaluate where they have come from, so it feels like an unnecessary risk.” (He added that it won’t be a major life change: “My level of hooking up was somewhere between occasionally and infrequently.”)
Tinder is currently flashing an alert to users when they open the app. “Tinder is a great place to meet new people,” it reads. “While we want you to continue to have fun, protecting yourself from the coronavirus is more important.”
Elyse Bailey, 28, who works in travel marketing and lives in Harlem, has decided not to sweat such warnings. “I am single and part of the hookup culture, and I’m going to live my life,” she said. “I feel like it’s already a risk to hook up with people. You hope that person is clean and getting tested, but you can’t really be sure.”
But Ogden Mendez, 33, who works for an alarm security company in Dallas, has redrawn the boundaries of his open marriage to his husband. “We can go to movies or dinners with other people, hangouts — but nothing physical,” he said. “And we agreed to be extra-cautious. No sharing spoons or drinks or getting close. Don’t do anything where you can get contaminated.”
Jamie Kelso, the bar manager at Pretty Ricky’s, a bar on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, said he has observed patrons sitting far apart from one another and discussing their favorite brand of hand sanitizer.
“I did notice a girl recently — I’m guessing she was just meeting the guy for the first time — shake hands with a date and then immediately pour Purell on her hands,” he wrote in an email.
(If those you’re attracted to aren’t showing any symptoms, said Dr. Jennifer Lighter, an epidemiologist at N.Y.U. Langone hospital, kissing should not be cause for worry. “Only make out with healthy people,” she said.)
Monogamous people may be worrying less about their love lives in the time of coronavirus. But they still have to contend with jitters in the workplace.
Ryan Rhodes, the software developer for Loftie, a wellness company, uses Cross Campus, a co-working space in Los Angeles where he sits at communal tables. While the space’s organizers are making special efforts to keep it clean and sanitary, worries remain.
“There are hundreds of people in this room breathing the same air,” he said. “I don’t know who else sits in my seat when I’m not around.”
Mr. Rhodes, 31, is currently taking protective measures like washing his hands often and staying away from people who are coughing. But he is contemplating suspending his membership and working from home. “It would be sad,” he said. “Co-working spaces are great for networking and being around people,” but he thinks “it’s a big risk right now.”
Mr. Mendez of Dallas has started isolating himself at lunchtime. “I used to be in the break room the whole time, but now I go to my car and either take a nap or eat there,” he said. “That started about a month ago. I just feel like this less contact I have with people, the better.” He said when he looks at his colleagues now, all he sees is germs.
Companies are trying to help keep employees and clients comfortable and still carry on with business as usual, even if that business includes socializing. On Wednesday, Hawkins International PR, a travel and lifestyle public relations firm, held a networking party for hundreds of people at Union Park Events in Manhattan.
A sign was displayed prominently at check-in that read, “As you travel around our showcase skip the hugs and handshakes, and instead may we suggest flash a peace sign, bump elbows, exchange a foot tap or get wavy with it.” Participants were eagerly using the hand sanitizer at the bar, and many refused the passed canapés.
This “foot tap” has, in parlance that now seems somewhat dated, gone viral online as “the Wuhan Shake.”
For those not up for such gyrations, Ms. Meier, the etiquette expert, recommended announcing one’s intention, rather than the extremes of swooping or recoiling. “I saw a friend of mine the other day who works at the Plaza, and she saw me coming, and said in advance, ‘I am not going to hug you, but I want to kiss you from afar,’” she said. “I love that, because it’s respectful and showing consideration.”
Still, people are going to get this wrong, Ms. Meier said.
“Everything is changing,” she said, “and there is going to be a lot of social awkwardness right now that will happen as a result.”