Let’s just fist bump

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By David Whitlock

John Lennon and Paul McCartney couldn’t have known the danger in the words they wrote with the Beatles first major hit, “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

“And please say to me, you’ll let me hold your hand.”

In case you haven’t heard, holding and shaking hands can be hazardous to your health.

According to the Center for Disease Control, up to 80 percent of infection can be spread through our hands. If you have a virus and I shake your hand, you will likely transmit your bacteria to me. If I then then rub my eye or scratch my nose, guess what? You’ve just shared your virus with me.

This is the kind of news I love and hate. I relish information that helps me avoid illness; but it’s also one more anti-bacterial defense mechanism I must manage. It’s the kind of information that is likely to push borderline germaphobes like me over the edge into OCD Land.

Why not just wash hands? That will certainly help reduce the risk, but it’s not always possible to wash after shaking hands. And besides, according to Dr. Tom McClellan at West Virginia University Medical School, “as many as 80 percent of individuals retain some disease-causing bacteria after washing.” Part of the problem is that few of us wash our hands properly. (You’re supposed to use soap and scrub for about the amount of time it takes to repeat the alphabet twice.)

What, then, is the alternative to hand shaking — that ancient ritual that can be traced at least to the 5th century BC — a custom that apparently developed as an expression of peace, showing that the hand held no weapon?

May I suggest the fist bump?

You know the fist bump. You clench your fist tightly, tuck your thumb inside your palm and extend your arm to someone who responds to you in like fashion.

President Barak Obama popularized the fist bump during the 2008 presidential campaign. Just before accepting the Democratic Party’s nomination as presidential candidate, he greeted Michelle with a fist bump rather than a hug.  The fist bump gained popularity.

Even the Dali Lama joined in, or at least he did in 2009, when he met the mayor of Memphis, Tenn., during a flu pandemic. There is good reason why the threat of flu prompted that fist bump.

Scientific evidence seems to support the claim that fist bumping over hand shaking can reduce the spread of infection. What Dr. Tom McClellan’s research at the University of West Virginia concluded was that the handshake, in comparison to the fist bump, led to a 400 percent increase in bacterial transfer. It makes sense: With the fist bump, you have less physical contact for a shorter period of time.

But, I have to admit, transitioning to the fist bump is not easy. What do you do when someone extends a hand for you to shake? Returning a fist bump instead of a hand shake might appear offensive, if not downright bizarre.

Yet, I was determined to be a change agent, so I decided to test the fist bump, incognito, of course.

Visiting another church seemed an acceptable setting for my venture.

Sitting next to me was a lady whom I guessed to be in her eighties, maybe nineties, reposing in a cloak of serenity — the perfect recipient for my first fist bump. When the time came for fellowship, I thought, “Now’s the time, be brave, do the fist bump.” Closing my fist and tucking my thumb, I began to raise my hand in her direction.

Greeting me with a smile as innocent as a new born baby’s, she offered her open hand to me.

I held my ground, lifting my fist.

Stiffening her neck, she looked gimlet-eyed at me.

Then, as if to wave away the confusion caused by my fist, she grinned again—a silent signal that she was overlooking my unusual behavior. 

Then she extended her hand once more, this time more aggressively with an added air of confidence.

She straightened her back and edged toward me, like a soldier poised for an attack.

It was over, beyond my control. My fist bump morphed into a handshake, disarmed by her sign of peace.

Her face beamed as she embraced my hand, enveloping my left as well, as if to say, “There now, sonny, don’t you feel better now that you’ve put away that silly notion of fist bumping?”

And indeed I did — all the way to my car, where I opened the door and reached for the hand sanitizer.