History of the Handshake: What We Can All Learn

May 12, 2020

Over the millennia, the handshake has maintained a firm grip on how we express ourselves. The act of two people grasping each other’s hands, accompanied by a brief up-and-down movement, has been used all through history for greetings, farewells, cementing agreements, expressions of gratitude and sportsmanship, win or lose.

The handshake is so ingrained in our culture that it has carved out a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. None other than President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) set a record for a head of state by shaking hands with 8,513 people at an official White House function on New Year’s Day, Jan. 1, 1907.That record was later eclipsed by an even more hands-on politician.

But during the current coronavirus pandemic and ubiquitous orders to socially distance ourselves (staying at least 6 feet from one another), the humble handshake now finds itself on, well, shaky ground. It’s not the first time, of course. As recently as the 2009 flu pandemic or swine flu, there were calls to short-circuit the handshake to interrupt the human spread of bacteria, viruses and other insidious germs.

But after the health scare, the handshake roared back, not to be held down. The art of the handshake is still something we pass down from generation to generation, informing those following in our footsteps to aim for the goldilocks grip — not too tight, not too loose, but just right.

This time, however, the handshake could be handcuffed permanently. But before saying goodbye to the handshake and fully embracing one of its less-satisfying substitutes — such as the bow, the elbow bump, or tip of the cap (in some cultures a sticking out of the tongue suffices as proper etiquette) — let’s pay proper respects to the handshake’s vice-like lock on our history.

The history of the handshake

History in Good Hands

Meanwhile, the Romans, fond imitators of Greek civilization, displayed pairs of clasped hands on their coins. The clasping of hands was a symbol of friendship and loyalty. Some historians, however, believe the gesture, especially the shaking part, was a way to dislodge a dagger that may have been stealthily concealed up the sleeve of a toga. After all, Caesar was felled by 23 stab wounds on the Ides of March (March 15) in 44 B.C.

Knights in Medieval Europe also were fond adopters of the handshake. Again, many historians surmise the act was a way for knights to shake loose any hidden weapons. And, of course, who can forget what is probably the most visible and archetypal image handed down from the Middle Ages, that of God and Adam connecting on the ceiling of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel! Although not technically a handshake, the extending of the right hand, which the Greeks called dexiosis, was a clear sign of bonding at the highest degree.

Moving out of the Medieval Ages to more enlightened times, the Scottish author James Cleland proclaimed that instead of things like bowing down to everyone’s shoes and kissing hands, he’d rather “retaine our good olde Scottish shaking of the two right hands togither at meeting with an vncouered head.”

Other historians ascribe the genesis of the handshake or at least its use as an everyday greeting to 17th century Quakers who used it as a more egalitarian alternative to bowing or tipping a hat. By the 1800s, the handshake was as commonplace as the curtsey and other socially accepted customs. Indeed, Victorian books of etiquette were incomplete unless they included a section advising readers that “A gentleman who rudely presses the hand offered him in salutation, or too violently shakes it, ought never to have an opportunity to repeat his offense.”

New norms

As normal and mainstream as the handshake is, it is giving way, at least temporarily, to a new normal. On March 3, 2020, two opposing Tanzanian politicians were photographed joyfully “foot-shaking.”

In Thailand, fellow greeters practice the wai (pronounced [wâːj]), a slight bow, with the palms pressed together in a prayer-like fashion.

In France, etiquette expert Philippe Lichtfus advised that looking directly into the eyes of the person you’re greeting will be sufficient. You might want to first practice in front of a mirror, lest your greeting be mistaken for the stink-eye.

Vulcan salute from Star Trek

Fist bumps, elbow bumps, hip bumps all have their advocates, and while all would seem to violate the recommended social distancing space, they all appear to be somewhat safer than the hallowed handshake.

For thousands of years, history has been on the side of the handshake. But at some point, in the course of human events, health becomes more important than history.


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