Shake On It - Or Not by Paul Lonardo

Shake On It – Or Not  by Paul Lonardo

The handshake has been around in one form or another for millennia. It is well-documented in historical records, but its evolution in becoming a common method of greeting in the Western world is not as clear as you might have thought.

One of the earliest depictions of a handshake can be found in a ninth century B.C. relief depicting the Assyrian King and a Babylonian ruler locking hands. This gesture was most often representative of displays or pledges of trust, as similarly described in several passages of Homer’s epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey. People “shaking hands” remained a recurring motif in the fourth and fifth century B.C. Greek funerary art.

In 300 B.C., Egyptians extended and shook with their right hands, which signified the phrase “to give.” This was a symbolic gesture of handing over power from a god to a human leader. During an annual ceremony, a king would grip the right hand of a statue of Marduk, an ancient Mesopotamian god, to transfer his authority, protection and strength into the next year. When Rome and Greece invaded Egypt, each carried the custom back to their countries. Handshaking as symbol of friendship and loyalty was even expressed in images on Roman coins.

Early 6th century Islamic teachings cite the handshake as a way to determine good or evil. The Koran associated the left hand with evil. While men and women used the left hand for dirtier daily duties, such as washing themselves, the right hand was reserved for more pure gestures, such as cooking, eating and touching the Koran. When men met, they shook right hands as a sign of equality and respect.

In Christianity, the Devil is depicted as left-handed, which is considered evil and bad luck by those with a superstitious bent even today. The Bible makes many favorable references to the right hand, such as the right hand of the Lord. Michelangelo’s immortal rendering of the creation of Adam on the Sistine Chapel shows him receiving life from God’s right hand. Christians followed this tradition by extending their right hands to shake as a gesture of goodness.

In the 14th century, European knights and soldiers extended their hands to indicate that they were unarmed. They would grasp each other’s forearms, literally patting the arm down to the hand before shaking it up and down, a motion intended to dislodge any knives or daggers that might be hidden in the sleeve. Knights raised their helmet’s visors with the right hand, which eventually became the salute.

By and large, these handshakes from antiquity were symbolic, or part of making deals and settling conflicts. The handshake as an everyday greeting is a much more recent phenomenon, with some historians believing it was first popularized by the 17th century Quakers, who viewed a simple handclasp as an alternative to bowing or tipping a hat. Other historians note handshaking in the modern sense not appearing as a routine and accepted greeting until the mid-19th centuryEtiquette manuals from this era can be found which include guidelines for the proper handshaking technique.

Just as today, the Victorian handshake was supposed to be firm but not overly strong. However, not everyone embraced this physical link enthusiastically, as some considered it an improper gesture that should only be used with friends.

As for why shaking hands became the standard form of greeting rather than some other gesture, that is subject to some debate. The most popular most explanation remains self-preservation, as the action incapacitates the right hand, making it useless for weapon-concealment and usage.

While most historians explain that shaking right hands became a friendly greeting symbolizing two people coming together in peace and not holding a weapon, science may provide a very different explanation – smell.

In a famous study conducted at the Weizmann Institute, researchers observed more than 270 people and discovered that after shaking hands with someone, many would sniff their hands afterward. This response appeared to be a completely unconscious act, but it was irrefutable, with the subjects bringing their right hands up to their noses 22% of the time. According to New Scientist, after shaking hands with someone, the subjects sniffed their hand more than twice as much as they did before the handshake. Scientists believe this activity has to do with something called social chemosignalingStudies have revealed that human sweat carries a wealth of information, including indicating the gender and age of a person, as well as emotional states, such as fear or happiness. The scientists believe that there is a lot more chemical communication going on than we are even aware.

In the midst of the handshake debate going on now over the concerns of passing germs, there are related customs around the world that are even more intimate. For instance, in Tibet an acceptable form of greeting is sticking your tongue out at someone. In Yemen, bumping noses would demonstrate that you view a potential business contact as a peer. Placing your nose and upper lip against someone’s cheek or forehead and sniffing, though limited to close relationships, is an Inuit tradition in Greenland. On the South Pacific island of Tuvalu, pressing cheeks together and taking a deep breath is a customary Polynesian welcome for visitors. Throughout Asia and Africa, honoring your elders is a given, but in the Philippines locals will take an older person’s hand and press it gently to their foreheads. In India, locals touch older people’s feet as a show of respect.

Whatever the ultimate fate of the handshake might be, it is worth knowing how it has been part of our society for a long time.

Paul Lonardo
Lincoln, Rhode Island , United States Of America


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