The Handshake | Ella Al-Shamahi

Summary of: The Handshake: A Gripping History
By: Ella Al-Shamahi


In ‘The Handshake: A Gripping History,’ Ella Al-Shamahi delves into the deeply rooted origins of handshakes and their cultural significance. This book summary explores both the practicality and the unifying nature of the handshake, implemented across species and cultures. Though this seemingly universal gesture might have been temporarily abandoned during pandemics, its prominence in conveying goodwill and trust endures. Get ready to learn about the development of the handshake, its various adaptations, and how it continues to be a powerful social tool.

The Hazards of Handshaking

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought attention to the potential risks of the handshake. As a transmitter of bacteria and viruses, the human hand can harbor germs responsible for the common cold and influenza. Alternatives like bumping fists and elbows significantly reduce transmission, with a fist bump reducing the risk by up to 90%.

The Science of Handshakes

Handshakes have been a part of human and chimp behavior for millions of years, and the gesture likely emerged from a common ancestor. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the handshake is unlikely to disappear entirely, given its historical and cultural significance. Handshakes have been depicted in ancient sculptures, such as the ninth-century BC Assyrian-Babylonian handshake, and referenced in works like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. While the handshake is often viewed as a cultural tradition, some scientists suggest it is ingrained in our DNA, much like language use. While gorillas do not employ the gesture, chimps and bonobos do, supporting the idea that our last common ancestor was a handshake user. The handshake’s longevity and cross-cultural significance suggest that it goes beyond mere convention and represents something deeper about human nature.

The Evolution of the Handshake

The handshake is not just a simple greeting but a universal symbol of peace, trust, friendship, and respect. It evolved as a way to extend good intentions without any negative implications. Starting a social interaction with a handshake improves the chances of a positive outcome and diminishes negative impressions. In the past, many tribes had complex greetings that demarcated tribal belonging, but as humans settled in cities, performing time-consuming rituals became impractical. Even isolated tribes used variations of the handshake before contact with civilization. However, some cultures in the Far East do not employ the gesture, possibly due to pandemics’ lingering effects. The handshake’s simplicity, broad application, efficiency, and usefulness in conveying peaceful intent have made it almost universal.

The Cultural Significance of Handshakes

Handshakes are a universal greeting, but different cultures have their unique variations. While the Western-style handshake dominates globally, Ethiopians bump shoulders, the Maasai tribe touch palms, and some Middle Easterners add a hand-on-heart gesture. The handshake’s global reign is attributed to the political and military dominance of Western nations such as the United States and Britain. This dominance also explains why the full-handed, firm, one- or two-pump handshake became the norm. Interestingly, all cultures use the right hand for shaking hands, which can be traced back to historical associations with virtue and cleanliness. The left hand was often seen as sinister and reserved for unclean tasks. Cultures continue to evolve the handshake, with some modern variations, such as the “elbow bump” becoming more popular due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite these changes, the handshake remains a vital cultural symbol that signifies respect, trust, and goodwill.

The Art of Greetings

Greetings vary across cultures and may convey respect, warmth, good intentions or inequality. Kisses, bows, and curtsies have co-existed with handshakes for centuries. Awkward situations can occur when cultures with different greeting protocols meet, such as when Barack Obama kissed Myanmar’s leader or Michelle Obama hugged Queen Elizabeth II. The handshake’s success may be due to its relative propriety compared to other tactile greetings. While traditional greetings still endure in some parts of Asia, the handshake remains the most universal and widely used greeting worldwide.

The Return of the Handshake

Despite its abandonment during deadly pandemics and outbreaks throughout history, the handshake has always made a comeback. Hitler popularized the raised arm salute in Nazi Germany, but it quickly perished with the Third Reich’s demise, leaving the door open for the handshake’s return. The COVID-inspired fist and elbow bumps will most likely disappear from the mainstream in favor of the handshake once the pandemic has retreated, but only the immediate fear of death or serious illness can suppress our need to shake hands temporarily.

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