Clodagh Finn: Longing for human touch in our new, contactless life

Shaking hands, hugging, and even standing too close together are now potentially lethal. The world has suddenly become very impersonal, writes Clodagh Finn
Clodagh Finn: Longing for human touch in our new, contactless life
Touching each other’s feet is the new greeting, because in a world with coronavirus, shaking hands could be lethal.

Shaking hands, hugging, and even standing too close together are now potentially lethal. The world has suddenly become very impersonal, writes Clodagh Finn

What I wouldn’t give for a firm handshake, a bone-crushing double-hander that goes on a little bit longer than is comfortable.

Come to think of it, I’d even settle for a limp, cold-fish offering, because the lack of the human touch, in this new, contactless version of life, is really starting to bite.

All that is important in the outside world now comes through in flattened images on a range of electronic devices.

This week, for instance, a funeral popped into my WhapsApp feed. Even writing that odd-beyond-words sentence shows that we are truly living in exceptional times.

It is not unusual to be moved by funerals, but it is difficult to relate the poignancy of this one.

The 55-second video, which captured a neighbourhood’s final farewell to one of its own, was among the most heart-rending pieces of footage I have ever seen.

Two violin players pierced an eerie silence with a rendition of ‘Nearer My God to Thee’.

The hand-held smartphone camera then swept up and down the road to reveal little groups of two and three, standing outside their gates to say their goodbyes.

It didn’t even last a minute, but it was a funeral in miniature: Respectful, dignified, and infused with love for the person who is no longer with us.

Distancing (let’s not call it social, please. It is anything but social) has not robbed us of our humanity, which bursts through in inventive ways, despite Covid-19 restrictions.

We have been forced to curtail the funeral, that comforting and most Irish of rituals, yet the bereaved continue to pay beautiful tributes.

But how can we truly mourn without physical contact?

A funeral, in particular, underlines the need to reach out to our fellow human beings and touch them, hug them, shake their hands, and look into their eyes to say that we are truly sorry for their loss.

Not only that, we have been denied the hundreds of intimate funeral conversations between friends, family, and relatives.

Watch and you’ll see the way their heads move closer together as they get deeper into the story, sometimes reaching out and touching a forearm to make a point.

Then there are the backslappers and the hair-touslers and the arm-strokers; all of them stripped of their ways to celebrate and memorialise, because, right now, keeping people apart is the best way we have of keeping them alive.

But it’s only a half-life. As time drags on, the lack of daily human contact is really starting to hit home.

I hadn’t quite realised how impersonal life had become until I found myself crossing the road because the path ahead didn’t allow a 2m gap between me and the walkers coming against me.

We live cheek by jowl in the modern world and now it’s become surprisingly clear how often we brush up against strangers, not to mention friends and relatives.

You don’t quite realise how important the handshake, the hug, and the peck on the cheek are until they are gone, or realise quite how often we make those gestures.

In an Irish context, that has a particular resonance, because the willingness to embrace our physicality was hard-won.

It doesn’t seem so long ago that some of us (guilty, your honour) crossed the road because we were too embarrassed or socially awkward to greet the approaching person.

Then, morto, we graduated to a slight nod of the head, perhaps a little grunted greeting and, deep breath now, eye contact.

As a teenager, it wasn’t going to Mass that bothered me, but the fear the priest would ask us to offer each other the sign of peace.

And not just offer it to the person either side of you: hands might come at you from several pews away, bless them.

The real terror struck when, in my early 20s, I went to France, where almost-strangers kissed each other on the cheek, not just once, but twice. Oh, the deep dread of it. Which side first? How many times? Where to look afterwards?

Sometimes, and with no way of possibly knowing, you’d be presented with a three-times or even four-times kisser.

It was enough to leave a self-respecting Irish person dizzy, mortified, and turning a very unappealing shade of purple.

Things have changed, though.

We have become a much more huggy, touchy-feely nation; not in an air-kissing, empty way, but in an earthy and sincere way that shows we are now, perhaps, just a little bit more comfortable in our collective skins.

Let’s hope the coronavirus will not undo that.

It’s unlikely, as the handshake has a long history. It goes back to ancient times, when it was thought to be a way of showing you were not holding a weapon.

How apt that image now, when a simple handshake could infect someone with a potentially fatal illness.

All around the world, handshakes, hugs, and kisses are, if not banned, actively discouraged.

In China, people are encouraged to put the fist of one hand into the palm of the other to say hello, in a traditional gesture known as gong shou.

Elsewhere, new greetings are being imagined, such as elbow bumps or simply looking into the other person’s eyes. In Iran, a video of three men footshaking instead of handshaking has gone ‘viral’.

As writer Arundhati Roy has said, isn’t it odd that we continue to use the term ‘viral’ when a virus has turned the world on its head?

Who knows how that virus will affect personal greetings in the long term.

It’s too early to say if it will signal the end of the handshake or, worse, prompt the reintroduction of the air-kiss.

I’m holding out for the return of the hug, though.

On the phone the other day, I sent a virtual one to a beloved neighbour. She sent me back a hundred.

As soon as it’s safe, I’ll be calling to collect them.

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