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 explores the origins and significance of the handshake as a universal gesture. Since chimps – humans’ closest relatives – shake hands in a similar fashion, the handshake may have emerged some seven million years ago, inherited by ancient Homo sapiens, Neanderthals, chimps, and bonobos. The book examines how handshakes have evolved across cultures, touching on notable examples and their various meanings, ranging from peace and trust to friendship and humility. It also delves into the biological and psychological aspects of the handshake, which plays a key role in establishing trust and social connections.

Handshakes: More Harm Than Good?

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed handshakes as a potential transmitter of contagion, with the human hand harboring germs making it a petri dish. Handwashing would reduce the germs’ movement, but people’s susceptibility to forgetful management means that replacement with elbow or fist bump might be a better option. Research suggests that replacing handshakes with fist bumps can reduce transmission by up to 90%, while elbow bumps can eliminate risk altogether.

The Biology and History of Handshakes

Handshakes have been a universal gesture across cultures and history, dating back to human’s early ancestors, and a recent pandemic will not eliminate it. Researchers believe that the act of shaking hands is imprinted in human DNA just like language is. Chimps, bonobos, Neanderthals, and humans inherited the gesture, but gorillas did not. The most ancient proof of a modern-style handshake is a sculpture from the ninth century BC featuring an Assyrian and Babylonian king. Homer’s works also refer to the handshake, and Etruscan and Roman artworks have depicted versions of it.

The Evolution of the Handshake

The handshake symbolizes peace, trust, and friendship. It evolved from a desire to extend good intentions and is almost universal. The simplicity and usefulness of the handshake in conveying peaceful intent led to its adoption. However, some cultures don’t employ the gesture, possibly due to past pandemics. In the past, tribes around the world used elaborate greetings demarcating who belonged to the tribe. But when humans began settling in towns and cities, these rituals proved impractical. Even the most isolated tribes employed versions of the handshake before making first contact with civilization. The handshake remains an essential aspect of social interaction.

The Cultural Significance of Handshakes

Handshakes are a universal form of greeting, but they vary in different parts of the world. While the Western tradition of a full-handed, firm, one- or two-pump handshake dominates globally, other cultures have unique variations like bumping shoulders, touching palms, and finger snapping. The political and cultural dominance of handshaking nations like the United States and Britain has spread the practice worldwide. The right hand is universally used, potentially due to associations with virtue. The left hand, with its sinister connotations, has been avoided in handshaking across cultures. The significance of handshakes goes beyond a simple greeting, as it reflects cultural identities, values, and traditions. Understanding these nuances can help in cross-cultural communication and avoid misunderstandings.

The Power of Greetings

Greetings in different cultures can be complex, with kissing and bowing being popular in many countries. Although these gestures can convey warmth and respect, they can also create awkward situations when cultures clash. The handshake has become a universally accepted greeting due to its relative propriety compared to other tactile greetings. While traditional greetings like bowing still endure in large parts of Asia, the handshake has made deep inroads and no alternative comes close to its universal use.

The Evolution of Greetings

The handshake has survived pandemics and will outlast COVID-inspired fist and elbow bumps.

Hitler’s raised arm salute may have been popular during the Third Reich, but it quickly perished, paving the way for the return of the handshake. Throughout history, deadly pandemics such as the Plague of Justinian and the Spanish Flu have caused nations to abandon handshakes temporarily. However, once the danger passed, the handshake came back stronger than ever. COVID-inspired fist and elbow bumps may be the preferred greeting for now, but they will likely fade away once the pandemic subsides, leaving the handshake to continue its reign as the universal symbol of trust and respect.

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