1. Stride confidently into the room to greet your 84-year-old female patient.
2. Introduce yourself saying, “Hi, I’m Dr. Jeff Benabio.”
3. Extend your clenched fist toward her chest and wait for her to reciprocate.
4. Smile awkwardly behind your mask while you wait.
5. Advise that you are doing a fist bump instead of a handshake to prevent the spread of viruses.
7. Explain that she can bump, also known as “dap,” you back by extending her clenched fist and bumping into yours.
8. Wait a bit more.
9. Lower your fist and pat her on the shoulder with your left hand. Do so gently so it doesn’t seem like you just did a quick right jab followed by a left hook.
10. Sit down diffidently and pray that you can help her so this office visit is not an utter disaster.
It seemed a good idea for 2020: Let’s stop shaking hands while we wait out this viral apocalypse. Sensible, but entering a patient room and just sitting down didn’t work. It felt cold, impolite – this isn’t the DMV. In medicine, a complete stranger has to trust us to get naked, tell intimate secrets, even be stuck by needles all within minutes of meeting. We needed a trust-building substitute greeting.
There was the Muslim hand-on-my-heart greeting. Or the Hindu “namaste” or Buddhist “amituofo” folded hands. Or perhaps the paternalistic shoulder pat? I went with the fist bump. With some of my partner docs, my old MBA squad, my neighbor, the fist bump felt natural, reciprocated without hesitation. But it fails with many patients. To understand why, it’s helpful to know the history of the fist bump, also known as the dap.
Dap is an acronym for Dignity And Pride. It’s a variation of a handshake that originated among Black soldiers in the Vietnam war as a means of showing fraternity and establishing connectedness. In Vietnam, 30% of the combat battalions were Black. Marginalized in the military and at home, they created a greeting that was meaningful and unique. The dap was a series of shakes, bumps, slaps, and hugs that was symbolic. It was a means of showing respect and humility, that no one is above others, that I’ve got your back and you’ve got mine. It was a powerful recognition of humanity and effective means of personal connection. It spread from the Black community to the general population and it exists still today. The choreographed pregame handshake you see so many NBA players engage in is a descendant of the dap. Like many rituals, it reinforces bonds with those who are your people, your team, those you trust.
The more generalized version is the simple fist bump. It is widely used, notably by President Obama, and in the appropriate circumstance, will almost always be reciprocated. But it doesn’t work well to create trust with a stranger. With a patient for example, you are not showing them respect for some accomplishment. Nor are we connecting with them as a member of your team. Unless this is a patient whom you’ve seen many times before, a fist bump attempt might be met with “are you serious?” In fact, aasking infectious disease professionals what they thought of fist bumps as a greeting, very few replied it was a good idea. Most felt it was unprofessional. Not to mention that a fist bump does not symbolize an agreement in the way that a handshake does (and has done since at least the 9th century BC).
With COVID waning and masks doffed, I’ve found myself back to handshaking. Yes, I sanitize before and after, another ritual that has symbolic as well as practical significance. I get fewer sideways glances from my geriatric patients for sure. But I do still offer a little dap for my liquid nitrogen–survivor kids and for the occasional fellow Gen Xer. “!”
Dr. Benabio is director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego. The opinions expressed in this column are his own and do not represent those of Kaiser Permanente. Dr. Benabio is @Dermdoc on Twitter. Write to him at email@example.com