This Is The Best Alternative Handshake

Just put your hands together and bow

A stewardess on Sri Lankan Airlines, saying ayubowan

Your hands are filthy and we can’t be shaking them anymore. Western politicians have tried to get around this by doing an elbow bump, which is just an awkward and shitty handshake. The best alternative is simply bringing your hands together in a prayer pose and nodding your head.

In Sri Lanka we call this ayubowan or vannakam, in India it’s namaste, in Thailand it’s the wai. This greeting is common across South and South-East Asia and now I think it’s time to introduce it to the world.

You can try this at home. Just bring your palms together in front of your chest. Bow slightly, or just nod your head. That’s it.

If you’re getting arrested and want the paparazzi to get your good side, just hold your hands up beside your head. This versatile greeting can also be done in handcuffs, making it very useful for South Asian politicians.

Where I live we call this ayubowan, meaning ‘may you have a long life’. In this age of coronavirus, this saying is literally true. By offering this greeting, you are wishing the person long life by thoughtfully not touching them with your hands. We also call it vannakam, meaning respect. And the gesture really feels that way.

This is essentially a worshipful pose directed at the other person. When we venerate the Buddha we do the same thing, only also bringing our palms up to our forehead.

What I like about ayubowan is that you can use it to wordlessly renegotiate a handshake. If someone offers their hand I just do an ayubowan, and they immediately understand. I don’t have to say ‘elbow-bump’ or ‘we’re shaking feet now’, even cross-culturally people understand the pose and can easily copy it.

Now, as this is a cultural greeting, issues of appropriation may come up. I do find the lame use of namaste in yoga-babble circles a bit irritating. In this case, however, I think this greeting needs to spread. We all need to socially distance, but at the same time, our social nature is what will save us. We still need a respectful greeting, and shaking elbows and feet is weird. Bowing is a bit intense, the military salute is for military, and the Roman salute is out.

A patient thanks a doctor in Jinyintan Hospital, Wuhan, 2020. (AP)

Therefore I respectfully offer the Sri Lankan ayubowan, known by different names here and throughout Asia. May you have a long life. Respect. Don’t touch me.