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Opinion: Handshake or fist bump?

The other day, I had lunch with an old friend whom I had not seen since early 2020 because of pandemic precautions we both have taken since COVID-19 arrived on the scene.

As we approached each other in the parking lot of the restaurant in Lehighton where we were meeting for lunch, we awkwardly tried to read each other’s signals as to how we would greet each other. If these were normal times, we would have embraced as we had numerous times before, but these are not normal times, so each of us was figuring out what to do and what each other preferred.

As we closed in on each other, I broached the subject - “hug or fist bump?” I asked. He smiled, seemingly relieved, and replied, “fist bump.” I was a little disappointed, but seeing my friend again after such a long stretch more than compensated for the greeting preference.

Similarly, at the annual Memorial Day services in my hometown of Summit Hill on May 30, I ran into Times News colleague Ron Gower, who was covering the event for the newspaper.

I reached out with my right hand, but he countered with his right fist. During these times, fist bumps supersede handshakes, so my open hand became a fist.

When I returned home, I was curious about how the fist bump got started and what it actually means. The definition was pretty much what I expected. “A fist bump is a hand gesture similar in meaning to a handshake or high-five, used as a greeting or in a celebratory fashion.’’

Is there a right or wrong way to perform a fist bump, I wondered. According to convention, the gesture is performed when two participants each form a closed fist with one hand then lightly tap the front of their fists together. Can’t get much simpler than that.

Why do people prefer a fist bump over a handshake? Throughout history, a clenched fist was a hostile gesture that often was a prelude to violence, so is this a factor when we’re making a greeting decision? Apparently not. Of course, these days the obvious answer to using it has to do with its being more hygienic, but proponents also say it’s cooler than a handshake, and you can do it with either hand.

Finding the origins of the fist bump is not so easily determined. One notion has the handshake, which has been around since ancient times, morphing into the “gimme five” palm slap favored by many athletes that later evolved into the “high five,” then the “fist bump.”

Some historians credit Stan “the Man” Musial, the St. Louis Cardinals’ great first baseman from 1941 until 1963, as having used it first; others contend that it began in the 1970s with NBA players. Still others credit the Hanna-Barbera cartoon, The Wonder Twins, with having used it in 1977.

Without doubt, the most famous fist-bumper is Howie Mandel, star of the quiz show “Deal or No Deal” and one of the judges on “America’s Got Talent.” A self-proclaimed germaphobe, Mandel says he tries to avoid exposure to germs which he contends is much more prevalent through handshaking.

I have been a handshaker most of my life - until now. These days, I pretty much let the person I am greeting make the first move. If he or she is doing the same, there is usually no handshake, no fist bump, merely the audible greeting. If I do shake hands today, I carry a bottle of hand sanitizer with me, which I use discreetly.

Not only was I a compulsive handshaker during my professional career, but I also rated the perceived quality of the return handshake. This was especially true of the hundreds of job candidates that I interviewed during my newspaper career.

Early on, I was taught that the handshake was one of the first impressions that a prospective employer formed of a job applicant in a face-to-face setting. A limp handshake could be interpreted as a lack of intensity or interest.

With this in the back of my mind, I sometimes took my handshakes with men to extremes. I was told more than once that my handshakes were painful, especially by some suffering from arthritis.

After these experiences, I came up with guidelines for a quality handshake: firm but not bone-crushing, shake but don’t pump a well, grasp a hand for a second or two but don’t linger, and maintain eye contact but don’t creep out the other person.

I suspect that others who had routinely shaken hands until this pandemic hit are thinking the way I do. When Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said during a national briefing that it might be a good time to eliminate the handshake, it got me thinking that this might not be a bad idea.

When the person you are greeting sticks out his or her hand, what do you do? Counter with a fist the way Ron Gower did, or go with the flow? Ah, decisions, decisions.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com

The foregoing opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the Editorial Board or Times News LLC.