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In our opinion: The handshake — A symbol of good faith, good manners, good sportsmanship … and germs

Published: Thursday, Aug. 7 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Updated: Wednesday, Aug. 6 2014 11:52 p.m. MDT

Don’t forsake the handshake quite yet. There may be times, places and situations where a handshake still fits — and others where a bump, a nod or a smile works just fine. Let’s use equal amounts of precaution, common sense and hand sanitizer.

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For centuries, the handshake has endured as a symbol of good — good faith, good manners, good business or good sportsmanship. It has punctuated peace accords, sealed the deal, confirmed the bet, congratulated winners and consoled losers.

Now, British research on passing germs in social greetings have some wondering if it’s time to shun the handshake in favor of the fist bump.

The handshake is historic. One can’t imagine Grant and Lee negotiating the end of the Civil War at Appomattox with a fist bump. Or Truman, Churchill and Stalin doing some sort of three-way “pound” at the Potsdam Conference. Or first Sadat and Begin and later Arafat and Rabin consummating Middle East dealings by “tapping knuckles.” Or Nixon asking Elvis to “rock me” in the White House.

OK, maybe the latter ….

Initially the domain of American sports stars and rap artists, bumping fists have become a social mainstay. The Washington Post called Barack Obama’s fist action with his wife before accepting the 2008 Democratic nomination “the fist bump heard ’round the world.” The president has since made it common public practice, extending the rally adage of “shaking hands and kissing babies” to include “bumping fists.”

Last month, Dr. David Whitworth, a senior biochemistry lecturer at Aberystwyth University in Wales, and a colleague donned sterile rubber gloves, with one dipping hands into a broth of a harmless strain of E. coli to entirely coat the gloves. The pair — of researchers, not gloves — then went through a series of hand maneuvers, including handshakes of varying intensities, high fives and fist bumps. They repeated the process using paint instead of bacteria, providing a visualization of how much surface area is involved in the interactions.

Published this month in the American Journal of Infection Control, the findings show a handshake can spread nearly 10 times the amount of bacteria as a fist bump, with a high-five about halfway in between. The stronger the grip in the handshake, the higher amount of bacteria transferred.

And the researchers’ recommendations? A move to the “cleaner” fist bump, especially during flu season and certainly at health-care institutions.

Of course, the cheeky British had a heyday. Public Health England suggested a Victorian-age bow or curtsy as being even safer. Meanwhile, the Telegram listed a number of reasons why the bump was superior to the ’shake — no “power play” to get the better position or stronger grip, no awkward lingering fist bumps and no worry about sweaty palms.

“There is definitely a serious side to this story,” said Whitworth, quoted by BBC News. “Superficially it is very whimsical, but there is a serious message underneath.”

Don’t forsake the handshake quite yet. There may be times, places and situations where a handshake still fits — and others where a bump, a nod or a smile works just fine. Let’s wash a little more often and use equal amounts of precaution, common sense and hand sanitizer.

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