The way of greeting someone comes in diverse forms. Kissing and hugging are the norm in some European and Arab countries. Maoris in New Zealand greet each other by rubbing against their noses. However, the most common physical way of greeting people nowadays is the handshake.
The clasping of the hands is the first thing that instantly pops in your mind, and not only when you greet someone. You would also shake hands when closing a deal, or reaching a compromise, or wanting to end fights and disagreements. It has become so ubiquitous that you may never have thought about its origins. It’s like it’s a part of human nature.
The earliest pieces of evidence of the handshake
The handshake signifies a lot of things other than a greeting, as illustrated by these recorded ancient examples. A throne base from the reign of 9th-century BC ruler Shalmaneser III depicts two figures shaking hands. That throne base makes a reference to him honoring a treaty with a Babylonian king during the time of insurgency.
During the 8th century BC, Homer wrote in Iliad about Diomedes and Glaucus shaking hands when they discovered they were “guest-friends,” with Diomedes telling Glaucus not to try to kill each other.
Many centuries later, William Shakespeare mentioned the two characters shaking hands in his comedy As You Like It as a way to settle a conflict.
How did the modern handshake evolve?
However, the history of the modern handshake, as a form of greeting, is more difficult to trace. The Quakers are traditionally seen as originators. But according to Dutch sociologist and handshake authority Herman Roodenburg in his publication A Cultural History of Gesture: “More than in any other field, that of the study of gesture is one in which the historian has to make the most of only a few clues.”
Roodenburg presents one of these clues: a 16th-century German translation of Gargantua and Pantagruel by the French author Rabelais. The modern English version translates it quite differently, depicting one of the characters as being greeted by “a thousand caresses, a thousand embraces, a thousand good-days.” The German translation, on the other hand, includes a reference to handshakes. Roodenburg tries to establish the notion that if the German translator adapted Rabelais to the readers, it indicates that the earliest instance of shaking hands, as a form of greeting, took place at that time.
Another well-known evidence of the early tradition of shaking hands took place in the early 17th century. A Scotsman living in England, named James Cleland, proclaimed that the practice of the “good olde Scottish shaking of the two right hands” should be retained, instead of the hierarchical practice of bowing down to anyone’s shoes and kissing hands.
But as centuries went by, those hierarchical manners of salutation gradually replaced handshaking. However, handshaking survived and persisted in several Dutch communities. The Quakers – who had high regard and importance for equality – also mantained the practice of shaking hands as a way of greeting.
As hierarchy began to decline across Europe, the practice of handshake re-emerged as a standard way to greet equals, just like in the way that we shake hands with our friends and colleagues.
However, not everyone was happy with the handshake. In 1880’s France, a society had been formed to abolish the handshake as a “vulgar” English novelty.
If you ask why shaking hands is the most preferred way of greeting over other gestures, the most well-known explanation is that handshaking prevents the right hand from holding a weapon. During the 19th century an assertion claimed that shaking hands without removing gloves was considered rude and demanded a prompt apology. An 1870 text gives an explanation: this idea came from an old belief that the glove might conceal a weapon.
The handshake losing ground in the US?
While the handshake is still the most common and ubiquitous form of greeting in many parts of the world, in the US that gesture may fall away in favor of the fist bump. Until recently, the fist bump was used only among athletes and young people. Nowadays, though, the fist bump has become a common thing among everyone. Yes, even older people do that. And no less than former President Barack Obama is a fan of the fist bump.
According to a survey conducted and commissioned by Purell, the maker of hand sanitizers, 49% of Americans sometimes prefer to use the fist bump over the conventional handshake greeting. Sounds mysterious? Not so! While the fist bump is a cooler way to greet someone, the reason may have been more practical. According to survey participants, they did not want to shake hands because they were afraid of catching and spreading germs.