Oh the handshake, the clasping of hands with a friend or stranger can be a weird experience. Researchers have actually developed a formula to help us give the perfect handshake. It breaks down important factors like temperature, vigor, smile, eye contact, completeness of grip, and dryness (This same study found that 19% of the participants hated the act of the handshake). But, it doesn’t cover what the function of the handshake is or why handshakes become less appealing when you give yourself the chance to think about them.

Social rituals are strange, most rituals are when you aren’t familiar with them or their function is unclear. To a lot of people, handshakes don’t make much sense. They require physical contact with someone you might not know or like, they don’t appear to be an assurance of anything other than the person you are handshaking with being able to handshake, and different cultures have different rules about the length, grip  and accompanying elements of a handshake. Not to mention that within cultures, people handshake differently. Which makes handshakes even more confusing. Throw in the saying, “you can tell a lot about a person from their handshake”, and it feels like an obligatory eye roll is the only reasonable response.

Then there’s the way you grasp their hand: if you try and interlace fingers, you might end up recreating a scene from a 1980s pop video that ultimately makes you both feel uncomfortable, if you don’t grip tightly enough then you are judged as having a “weak handshake” which is “obviously” indicative of a weak character, if you grip too tightly then you will earn a reputation for breaking people’s hands and if you don’t grip at all it can stifle the communication that follows. None of these are ideal. There is also, what I like to call, the “perch” handshake. I call it “the perch” because the percher brings their hand down in a similar way that they would do for a  hand-kiss , but the intention is to hold hands, so their hand falls over your outreached-expecting-a-normal-handshake-hand which leaves you with the simple option of holding their fingers and proceeding as if you were handshaking another outstretched hand or you could try and pry their hand open enough so your palms can touch (I wouldn’t advise this, they’ve already made this unclear custom awkward. Roll with it). When shaking hands with a percher, the way that they hold their hand  looks as if it is calling for a small bird to fly in and sit atop it, officiating the handshake, but this doesn’t happen.


Image description: A man with dark hair and a beard in a suit and tie standing aggressively and puffing his chest up facing a blonde woman in makeup, a shirt jacket, skirt and heels stands on a rock with her arms above her head like a preying mantis and growls at him, while a man in a suit and tie in the background stands and watches timidly from behind a tree. Text reads, “Handshake origins predate written history. Historians theorize the the handshake was a way to assure peace and nonaggression by showing that you weren’t carrying a piece. The shaking motion was supposed to dislodge any sharp objects that may have been hiding in the sleeve. * Practiced in ancient Greece as early as 5th Century BC. * Extended hands were found in Egyptian hieroglyphics.”It’s been suggested that the original function of a handshake was to assure peace, demonstrate that you were not carrying weapons and, according to the infographic above, the shaking motion was introduced to dislodge any potential weapons being hidden in sleeves.

Another function is olfactory: In some human cultures a quick sniff is part of the traditional greeting ritual. Research from the Weizmann Institute suggests that human handshakes replace overt sniffing behaviour by transferring social chemical signals between the shakers. How? It appears that there is a tendency to bring the shaken hands to the vicinity of the nose and smell them.

Image Description: A man with dark hair and a beard in a suit and tie and a blonde woman in a suit sniff each other while standing in waist deep water. Text reads: The olfactory purpose of the primal handshake: “At its evolutionary origins, handshaking might have also served to convey odor signals, and such signaling may still be a meaningful, albeit subliminal, component of this custom.”  – Professor Noam Sobel, Weizmann Institute. * Basically, handshaking may provide people with a socially acceptable way of communicating via smell, replacing a more obvious sniffing behavior.

So the handshake is an old social contract and, potentially, an adventure in pheromone swapping. Another possible function could also be that the handshake was a protective way to engage in physical contact while maintaining distance between the handshakers.

But what about the hygiene aspect? Research has shown that handshakes spread a number of pathogens, certain diseases and viruses spread through skin-to-skin contact, and one medical study found that a high five or a fist bump spreads fewer germs than a handshake. These findings more than validate a dislike of handshaking.

Some social rituals are awkward, and when you break the handshake down it is equally interesting and questionable. Engage in them how you want to, and if you don’t want to handshake or you don’t like shaking hands then politely decline and greet people with a fist bump or a wave. While there is a lot of information about handshaking online and in body language books, it doesn’t mean that it is an obligatory social rule. It’s just a social norm and, in the words of Anthony Storr, “originality implies being bold enough to go beyond accepted norms”.


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