Yara Blog

The Mystery Behind a Handshake

Thursday, February 14th, 2013  


Ever since I was young, there was something about when a person stretched out their hand to join the hand of another person that fascinated me. For so long, I did not know why people ‘joined hands’, but I figured that it was just something you did when you met



someone. I asked myself whether it was mandatory; I also wondered whether it would be rude to reject a handshake. After some study and research on the gist behind a simple handshake, I have discovered that there is more to it that meets the eye. Generally, some say that it is a custom, a mere convention carried out by people. Others say that there is science behind a single handshake, and those who read body language see a lot of importance in a handshake. Some secret societies, like the Masons, use them to identify apprentices and members of their society. Here is some insight on what I discovered.

Historically, the joining of hands can be traced back to Ancient Greece, as far back as the 5th century BC, where it was originally thought to symbolize peace, as both hands were not holding weapons. In modern times, it has been associated with good first impressions, especially in the business world. Ladies engage in handshakes in the work place as a sign of gender equality, while they may offer their fingers for a kiss in social gatherings.

There are various handshake etiquettes. According to Etiquette International, New York, handshakes are generally acceptable for men and women in a business environment. The quality of the handshake mostly shows the status and confidence of the person. An ideal handshake is firm and should last for 3 seconds at most, any longer and it may become handholding, which can be awkward and intimate. It should precede good eye contact and an introductory verbal communication. Handshakes are commonly used when meeting someone for the first time, saying goodbye, or when greeting a guest or host. It should also be warm and respectful, not a display of power and physical strength.

In different areas of life, handshakes can be seen to be used for non-verbal communication, usually done at the beginning and end of a conversation or meeting but hardly in the middle. It is common for a business deal to be concluded with a handshake, indicating a meeting of minds and mutuality of purpose. It also shows that a deal has being struck or that negotiations have broken down. On the other hand, handshakes are common at the beginning and end of various sports. Teams, players and coaches as well as referees are seen exchanging handshakes to symbolize sportsmanship and fairplay. Also, “it is a tradition for US Supreme Court Justices to greet themselves with handshakes. Chief Justice Melville Fuller started this trend in the late 1800s; it is called the “conference handshake”. He stated “that the harmony of aims if not views, is the court’s guiding principle” (Illuminations.nctm.org/lessondetail.aspx/id=l630). In the “hood”, various types of informal handshakes are used. High 5s and fist bumps are common, all with the aim of showing brotherly love and solidarity”. However, some religions and customs prohibit contact between men and women. In Russia, for example, it is a taboo, impolite and rude to shake the opposite sex, while in China, a long weak handshake is preferred.

In a research recently conducted and published on 19th October, 2012, some Neuroscientists discovered that there is science behind a simple handshake, other than symbolizing peace, as earlier thought. Sanda Dolcos said “I would tell them to be aware of the power of a handshake,” she went on to say “We found that it not only increases the positive effect toward a favorable interaction, but it also diminishes the impact of a negative impression. Many of our social interactions may go wrong for a reason or another, and a simple handshake preceding them can give us a boost and attenuate the negative impact of possible misunderstandings”. Florin Dolcos, who heads the Dolcos Lab for Affective, Cognitive, and Clinical Neuroscience, also expressed that “in a business setting this is what people are expecting, and those who know these things use them, not a very long time ago you could get a loan based on a handshake. So, it conveys something very important, very basic. Yet the science underlying this is far behind. We knew these things intuitively but now we also have the scientific support”

.It is interesting to note that a handshake may have deceptive implications. A clear example is a two handed handshake popularly called “politician handshake”. It is usually seen as a breach of privacy and such handshakes tend to leave a false positive impression as they consist of artificial feelings. Those who are aware of the effect of such handshakes use them to instill trust and confidence in the electorate to persuade or create an impression that they can be trusted. It is advisable not to trust such politicians because they would say and do anything to win votes. A fun fact is that Mayor Joseph Lazarow of New Jersey holds the Guinness Book of World Records for shaking over 11, 000 hands in a single day in July 1997.

There are however some medical implications of a handshake. It is questionable if everyone actually wipes their hands before shaking other people. Communicable diseases and pathogens like virus and bacteria can be spread through physical contact such as a simple handshake. A casual handshake can lead to the spread of diseases which can bring about undesirable state of health. It would be wise for you to wipe your hands before and after engaging in a handshake. It is a common phrase that you never know where a man’s hand has been, so a hand sanitizer would be helpful in such situations. Despite being medically cautious, it is nice to be polite and in being polite, it is advisable when shaking a person with sweaty palms not to wipe your hands immediately after, for fear of making them feel embarrassed.

In conclusion, the fascinating art of a handshake can be seen not just as a casual practice but to carry business, social, political, religious and recently scientific implications. A firm friendly handshake is recommended for good first impression especially in the business world. Although mindful of health and religious restrictions, a good use of a handshake can convey messages before opening your mouth. So, shake a friend today.


Emmanuel Ohiri



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