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How did hand shaking originate?

Updated on September 9, 2015
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We hardly think about it. We meet someone we haven’t met before and as a part of exchanging pleasantries, we shake his or her hand. We also shake the hands of those we meet during formal appointments. But where did hand shaking come from? An informative article regarding a frequently performed ritual in human life with a most interesting history.

History of shaking hands

Assuming that everyone knows what handshakes are, I have decided to skip its explanation and zoom in on their origins first. The first documented time a handshake was performed, took place in the 9th century BC, when the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III publicly shook hands with Marduk-zakir-shumi I of Babylon, hence accentuating the Assyrian-Babylonian friendship. Although this handshake is commonly known as the first one ever to be performed by mankind, it is generally agreed that this ritual goes back way further in time than documented history.

The first documented handshake ever performed by mankind.
The first documented handshake ever performed by mankind. | Source

Why shake hands?

A long time ago, by shaking someone’s hand you showed that you were not holding a weapon and therefore that you had no hostile intentions. This ritual has passed the test of time and till this day, it’s considered to be a desirable, friendly or at least polite gesture that’s frequently performed during introductions, when saying goodbye, when congratulating someone and after reaching certain agreements.

Why do you use your right hand?

In some countries, the left hand is used during big bathroom visits for cleaning purposes, as a result of which it has become customary to shake hands with your right hand. Therefore, despite the marvelous inventions of toilet paper, soap and facilities to wash your hands, performing this ritual with your left hand is still not-done.

Development of shaking hands

Other than a firm and a weak handshake, several different (and more casual) ways to perform a handshake have developed over the course of time. As such, there is the so-called ‘Clinton-handshake’: you firmly put your right hand out while your left grabs the elbow of the person you’re shaking hands with. This is a rather conversational and informal way of shaking someone’s hand, hence not really lending itself for occasions such as job interviews. Another informal type of handshake, which can often be seen in sports environments, is the fist bump, whereby the fists of two people gently touch each other. And then there is the hand hug, often performed among friends, whereby the thumbs of both hand shakers seem to ‘hug’ once their hands are put up straight against each other.

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Shaking hands in various cultures

The way in which handshakes are performed varies by country. See below for an overview of countries, their respective types of handshakes and when they are performed.
-Belgians have a reputation for shaking hands frequently, particularly during meetings and gatherings;
-The Chinese prefer a weak handshake, whereby it is customary to hold each other’s hands a little longer after the initial handshake;
-In English speaking countries, people tend to shake hands in business environments. In more casual or informal situations, men tend to shake hands more frequently than women;
-Whenever you’re in Japan, let the Japanese take initiative for a hand shake; this is considered respectful in their country. Like the Chinese, they prefer a weak handshake;
-In South-Korea, you’re supposed to leave the initiative for shaking hands up to your elders. Again, a weak handshake is preferred, but if you really want to show off your manners, you hold the left arm of the person you’re shaking hands with at the same time. Furthermore, it’s considered to be rude to keep your left hand in your pocket while performing a handshake;
-Contrary to several Asian countries, Norwegians do appreciate a firm handshake, particularly when reaching agreements, both at home and on the work floor;
-In some parts of Africa, it is customary to shake hands repeatedly during a conversation. By doing so, you give a signal to others in the vicinity that your conversation is held between you and the person you’re talking to only;
-In Switzerland, you’re supposed to shake hands with women first;
-In Austria (and Southern Germany I know from experience), you shake hands every time you meet someone. Children are expected to do the same;
-In Russia, men and women rarely shake hands. Except for in business situations, men kiss the hands of women when they meet them;
-Many people in India and some neighboring countries do not shake hands. Instead, they greet each other with a Namaste (pronounced: naa-ma-stay) gesture (sometimes accompanied with a bow). Namaste can be much more than just a greeting though, since its translation comes down to something along the lines of 'greetings with respect to all of who you are from my humble self’ and ‘greetings to all of who you are without ego on my part'. It's an extremely humble and respectful way of greeting other people that many New Age thinkers have adopted as well;
-In certain Islamic countries, handshakes ought not to be firm (this is considered to be rude). Also, shaking hands between men and women is not-done.

Namaste greeting.
Namaste greeting. | Source

Peroration

For me personally, it doesn’t matter whether a hand shake is firm or not. A handshake is a handshake. Neither does the type of handshake matter to me, although you won’t see me take initiative to perform a fist bump. However, I never turn them down either. The way I shake hands depends entirely on gender. If I shake hands with another man, I do so firmly, but if I shake hands with a woman, I try to be more careful. What I do care about, is that whoever shakes my hand looks me in the eye when doing so. To me, that’s a sign of respect and sincerity.

Altogether, the ritual of shaking hands has originated in a rather logical way. Despite the (sometimes big) cultural differences between countries in which it is customary to shake hands, there is one obvious similarity: throughout the centuries, handshakes have had a positive connotation and they still do today.

What matters to you the most when shaking hands with someone?

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© 2015 Victor Brenntice

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    • RJ Schwartz profile image

      Ralph Schwartz 

      3 years ago from Idaho Falls, Idaho

      Great, and well researched work - I found it quite enlightening and interesting.

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