I was flipping through the March, 2020 issue of Food & Wine Magazine and settled in to read the F&W PRO column by Josh Miller. It featured Pardis Stitt, co-owner of Highlands Bar & Grill and three other restaurants in Birmingham, Alabama. The title of the article, The Art of Hospitality, focused on how Ms. Stitt endeavors to create the perfect guest experience for her customers. Since I want guests to my home to have a charming experience, I was eager to see if I could pick up any tips. One of her first steps was to create a team of A-level employees. What really caught my eye was her response to the last question. When asked what she looks for in a potential team member, her response was “Enthusiasm, kindness, curiosity and a good handshake.” My question is, when restaurants eventually reopen, will Ms. Stitt still be shaking hands with potential employees?
The handshake is an ancient, almost instinctive ritual. We have no way of knowing how it first began. A popular theory is that it was a gesture of peace, demonstrating that the hand held no weapon. Another is from anthropologists who have studied primate behavior over generations. They have noticed how primates instinctively reach out to other primates and believe humans are reaching out in the same manner, looking for tactile contact and comfort.
Growing up, the handshake was more a habit of males, saying hello, goodbye or sealing the deal. During my young adult years, I worked hard at being comfortable shaking hands, thinking it made me appear more professional and serious, a skill I may no longer need.
In a segment of Sunday Morning with Jane Pauley on Easter, Patricia Napier-Fitzpatrick of the Etiquette School of New York expressed her dismay at the thought of the handshake becoming extinct. She spends hours teaching “knives and forks and handshakes” at her school. But Ms. Napier-Fitzpatrick obviously realizes that etiquette must evolve with the times. Her latest blog post is The Power of Eye Contact. I thought about eye contact during a recent trip to the grocery store. Wearing my mask, other customers couldn’t see my lips smile when we carefully and politely avoided getting too close to each other and I wondered if my eyes were conveying my warmth and appreciation.
In these days of COVID-19 uncertainty and the hour-to-hour coverage, the one voice I do pay attention to is the learned Dr. Anthony Fauci’s. To prevent spreading germs, he advises us to never go back to shaking hands. I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t be to keen on us borrowing La Bise (double cheek kissing) from our friends in France either. So, no handshake, no kiss, what are we left with? I can’t imagine the awkward elbow bump taking off as a form of greeting. Perhaps an Asian slight bow as a sign of respect or the Plains Indian greeting of showing your hand with the palm out may prove useful alternatives. Or how about the peace sign which began as a simple V sign for victory, used by Winston Churchill during the war.
There are no easy answers. Our day to day contacts have been radically curtailed. We have weeks ahead to conjure up interesting and effective greetings. Although we don’t know exactly how we will greet each other when the time comes, the simple pleasure of being with our friends and family may be enough.
C’est la vie.