The Handshake

5/13/2005 1:38:12 AM

IT COMES in an abundant variety of forms: the offensively clammy, the iron tight grip, the pathetically limp and lifeless, the awkwardly excessive in duration. And it fulfils all manner of purposes: It says hello, it says goodbye, it seals the deal, it’s the platonic ‘kiss and make up’ and, where embarrassing Western politicians is concerned, it has become Robert Mugabe’s weapon of choice. Indeed, the handshake has permeated our culture, our etiquette, our daily lives, to become perhaps our most important non-verbal communicative contrivance.

The handshake shows no sign of fading out of fashion, which is a remarkable feat for a gesture well past its 3,800th birthday. Being pre-written history makes tracing its origins a rather tricky matter, but hieroglyphics give a helping hand, so to speak, in pointing us in the right direction. The Egyptian hieroglyphic of the extended hand represents the verb, ‘to give’. This symbol finds its derivation in the shaking of hands which represented the legend of the handing over of power from a god to an early ruler. Hence the Babylonian ritual (circa 1800BC) in which the king clasped the hand of a statue during the New Year’s festival so that his authority was transferred to the next year. When Babylon fell to the Assyrians hands kept right on shaking, with the new kings carrying on the ancient ritual for fear of offending the gods.

Speeding forward a few millennia to the Middle Ages, we find another manifestation of handshaking. Back then people had more to fear from a simple introduction than just screwing up the all-important first impression. When two strangers would meet, each would extend their right hands, grasping the other’s hand to demonstrate that they did not possess concealed weapons. The shaking motion was an attempt to dislodge any fatal weaponry that may be lurking ominously up the sleeves. The handshake effectively became short hand for ‘I promise I’m not about to violently stab you to your untimely and bloody death’. This explanation elucidates why women, who were not traditionally allowed to carry weapons, did not develop the handshaking custom to the extent that their male counterparts did at that time.

It was during the 19th Century that the practice of handshaking became more widespread among ladies. Contrary to the ethos of British reserve, the English were once far more demonstrative in their greeting habits – men would customarily greet all women with a kiss on the mouth. This was all a bit too much for the uptight sensibilities of the Victorians, and public kissing of any kind soon became socially unacceptable. As a result the handshake rapidly became the à la mode way to address one another.

Boy Scouts and their strange habits excepted, handshaking has generally been a right handed affair. This is probably due to the fact that in many regions of the world the left hand has been considerately reserved for ‘bathroom duty’ and consequently was never to be used for food, giving or receiving.