Now that they’re virtually extinct, thanks to COVID-19 and the attendant messaging on militant hand hygiene, the custom can be seen for what it is: kind of weird. There’s an intimacy — especially if it was someone you were meeting for the first time — that always felt forced, and sometimes uncomfortable. You imagined what that hand had done recently, or what it would be doing later. Palms traded their sweat and who knows what else. In the masculine tradition, it became a contest of grip. Firm handshakes were attributed to power, confidence and honesty.
The pandemic swiftly created a taboo around this gesture, but an alternative was slow to emerge, not least because our contact with others was severely limited for months. As Americans hastily abandoned restrictions, rejoining the social sphere, the handshake nonetheless remained verboten for many, and it was just about the most awkward thing you could do instead — bumping elbows — that gained currency. At first, the elbow bump was a joke: Your instinct was to offer a hand, then you remembered not to, and stuck out the midpoint of your arm in self-conscious yet light-hearted fashion, as though to say, “Hmm, like this?”
Over time, however, we’ve committed to the elbow bump, and even brought the “blowin’ it up” excitement of a classic fist bump to the proceedings. After my first haircut since March (desperately needed and a sweet relief), my barber and I flexed hard for an emphatic right-elbow bump. When you’re wrapping up a picnic with pals in the park, you can elbow bump to say goodbye, and put your whole body into it.
Whereas the handshake was a sign of good faith turned somewhat violent — it once demonstrated that you had no weapon in hand, only centuries later becoming a test of manual mettle — the elbow bump has a friendly aggression built in. Well-executed, it feels like a martial arts move. Some have resisted or complained that it’s cumbersome and pointless, and to them I say: Keep practicing. The bump is here to stay.
You don’t have to be a dude to bump elbows. One must observe, however, that guys appear to enjoy the physical release of striking the ends of their forearms together — perhaps a replacement for their back-slapping bear hugs and fraternal horseplay. At a moment when human-to-human touch is at a premium, that contact goes a long way. Soon enough, we may see all manner of elaborate variations: regional, local, professional, personal. There’s a satisfaction, too, in giving this role to an essential, overlooked joint. The last time you thought of your elbow, it was probably because of pain. Now the elbow gets to do something joyful.
One question clouds this rosy picture: What if we hasten the spread of coronavirus with so much elbow-rubbing? We don’t have the data yet, but common sense would suggest it’s much, much safer than grabbing someone’s oft-used hand. And should you be really concerned, well, you can always take extra precautions. In fact, let’s make this a PSA: Sanitize those elbows, guys.