Despite Its Long History and Popularity, Is a Handshake a Thing of the Past?

Last week in a post I shared a statistic that close to 75% of participants in a survey believe handshakes are now a relic of the past.

I also stated that I would hate to see the handshake go away, and at least a couple people agreed.

Brad from commonsensiblyspeaking, commented: “I know that the lack of shaking hands or close physical contact has been the toughest for me. Anyone who thinks that should go away forever, has never looked another man in his eyes and shook his hand about something.”

And Pete from Pete Springer states: I always greet people with a handshake or hug. While I’m sure I’ll modify this some, I suspect that after we come up with a vaccine, some of this will come back.

But not everyone is a fan of handshakes, as shown by the comments they left:

Robbie from Robbie’s Inspiration noted: I must be honest, Jim, I think the practice of shaking hands is very unhygienic. I have never volunteered my hand unless the other party put their’s out and it was unavoidable.

Margie from Back Roads and Other Stories wrote: As to handshakes, I won’t miss them at all. To me it’s a relic of a man-dominated world that should probably go away, and not for hygiene reasons only. I was in business meetings where there were very hearty handshakes between the men and there was either some hesitation before shaking my hand, or no shaking hands at all if I wasn’t the one to extend my hand out first. I thought it was bizarre at the time, but cast those thoughts aside. Seeing your post and some of the comments made this uneasy feeling resurface.

Given these different viewpoints, I thought I’d read a bit about the handshake, and came across this wonderful post that provides lots of background on the handshake. The post starts with a  wonderful paragraph pointing out the many different ways people around the world greet each other:

There’s an amazing diversity of greeting customs around the world. In Tibet sticking out your tongue can be a way of welcoming people. In New Zealand, Maori greet each other by touching noses. Ethiopian men touch shoulders, and in the Democratic Republic of Congo, male friends touch foreheads. In many Asian countries, people bow to each other when meeting. And in some European countries, as well as Arab countries, hugs or kisses on the cheek are more the norm. While this wasn’t always true, the most common physical way to greet people around the world is now the handshake.

The next paragraph then shared some of the histories of the handshake. As you will read, it has been around a looooong time, and initially, it played a key role in peacemaking initiatives.

The history of the handshake dates back to the 5th century B.C. in Greece. It was a symbol of peace, showing that neither person was carrying a weapon. During the Roman era, the handshake was actually more of an arm grab. It involved grabbing each other’s forearms to check that neither man had a knife hidden up his sleeve. Some say that the shaking gesture of the handshake started in Medieval Europe. Knights would shake the hand of others in an attempt to shake loose any hidden weapons.

The post ended by noting that the fist bump has replaced the handshake in many situations. One survey claims that forty-nine percent of Americans sometimes choose the fist bump over a traditional handshake greeting. The post was written at least five years ago, and I don’t think the handshake has experienced any sort of surge in popularity since the posting.

Another search of Google added a bit more history to the handshake, claiming that one of the earliest depictions of a handshake is found in a ninth-century B.C. relief, which shows the Assyrian King Shalmaneser III pressing the flesh with a Babylonian ruler to seal an alliance. The epic poet Homer described handshakes several times in his “Iliad” and “Odyssey,” most often in relation to pledges and displays of trust. The gesture was also a recurring motif in the fourth and fifth century B.C. Greek funerary art. Gravestones would often depict the deceased person shaking hands with a member of their family, signifying either a final farewell or the eternal bond between the living and the dead. In ancient Rome, meanwhile, the handshake was often used as a symbol of friendship and loyalty. Pairs of clasped hands even appeared on Roman coins.

The use as an everyday greeting is a more recent phenomenon. Some historians believe it was popularized by the 17th century Quakers, who viewed a simple handclasp as a more egalitarian alternative to bowing or tipping a hat. The greeting later became commonplace, and by the 1800s, etiquette manuals often included guidelines for the proper handshaking technique.

I am still a fan of handshakes after reading more about them, but I can understand the concerns expressed above in terms of hygiene and the fact that it tends to be a guy thing and thus women may feel left out of the greeting process.

Perhaps if we trusted people to keep their hands clean, which the world has gotten better at due to COVID-19, and made sure that the gesture was done in to be appropriate for men and women, then I think the handshake can return to its humble roots, and be used as a sign of friendship.

*image from Euro News

46 thoughts on “Despite Its Long History and Popularity, Is a Handshake a Thing of the Past?

  1. As you say, there are a range of opinions on handshakes. With all of the social distancing lately, I can’t off the top of my head recall the last time I shook hands. I’ve dealt with a few who use a handshake as a dominance thing. As far as greeting someone, if it is a relative or close friend I like a hug. For greeting a friend or being introduced, I like a verbal greeting and a smile. A handshake as a form of signaling agreement or reconciliation is a bit different. As far as the future, the days of handshakes, fist bumps and hugs may be numbered. I’m guessing Covid-19 won’t be the last pandemic of our lifetimes.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Some think increases in population in urban centers and international travel, unfortunately people like me, mean that virus outbreaks will spread quicker and farther before we recognize what’s going on. If handshakes are becoming less popular, it may also be related to what appears to be a general trend toward informality. It is interesting to see how traditions change right before our eyes.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting that Margie noticed how some men are hesitant to shake hands with women. I too have been hesitant to shake hands with women, ever since I heard a group of women talking about handshaking and how much they hated it, regarding it as creepy.

    Since the handshake began as a means of two people showing each other they have no weapons in their hands, I think it should be replaced by a full-body frisking. A full, head-to-toe pat-down would help to establish that neither party is armed, and they can safely proceed with business.

    However, I get the sense that frisking may not go over well with those women who regard handshaking as creepy.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Sounds like a good idea. This would be the high-tech modern version of a handshake. Maybe there could be an app for it, so we could conveniently use our cell phones, instead of wands.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. This is a tough one. I used to give a hug to any student who wanted one in my class during my years of teaching 2nd and 3rd grade. (Not nearly as much as the kids got older in my years teaching 4-6 grades.) Some of those children needed that so much. I wouldn’t do that now in the COVID era. I do the elbow thing with my friends these days, but it still feels weird.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My wife has the same issue with her pre-school kids. It’s one of the highlights of her job getting those daily hugs, but now they are not permitted. It’s hard enough for my wife to give it up, but for some kids it’s just such a natural reflex, sort of like calling you Mom!

      I can’t do the elbow thing, it seems too awkward…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I hug those I know and who are open to a hug, shake hands with those I have just met… and kiss cheeks with friends from Europe. Last time I checked, I was a woman… and have never met any hesitation is shaking hands. You can tell a lot about a stranger from a handshake.
    I would hate to see these forms of ‘open’ physical greeting die out. Fist bumps etc are ‘closed’ greetings.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. thanks for your insights, Sue. I like the way you break the greeting down to various situations and what you think is most appropriate. I follow almost the same guidelines. Since I don’t have many friends from Europe, not sure I could do the cheek kissing thing 🙂


  5. Interesting history! “Sticking out one’s tongue”?? Really? LOL!
    I have always been fine with handshakes, but Hugs are the best! Handshakes seem more formal, so they are fine with people I don’t know well. Strangers that I am meeting for the first time. If I know you and consider you a friend, than I want a hug! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’ve gotten better about giving hugs, but I still tend to hold back and use the handshake. Well, at least I used to until COVID-19.

      And yes, sticking out the toungue is an odd one for us, but they may think shaking hands is strange! 🙂


  6. I remember, as a kid, betting on silly things with my friends. But the rule was the bet was not agreed on until you shook hands on it. The handshake, for me, has been a symbol of mutual respect for my entire life. I remember, as a small boy, the thrill of shaking hands with adults and feeling like I was accepted as part of the tribe. That somehow I had aged into being something more than a child. I will always want to shake hands, but I am also now cognizant of other peoples fears, so I do not push the issue. Great write up and history of our most common greeting, Jim! Really well written!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. thanks, Brad. And I have the same thoughts as you regarding the handshake; it was a way of creating a bond and trust with others.

      And as far as the really well-written, that’s probably becuase a lot of it was copied and pasted from the web sites I referenced! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. how very interesting. I didn’t know the history, and always find cultural customs fascinating. I’m a hugger by nature, so it’s been a challenge for me –

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would think as a kindergarten teacher, hugging is just a natural part of the day. I am sure it is tough on both the teacher and the child to refrain from doing so…

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I think the handshake is on its way out, thanks to the pandemic and the way society is changing. I was never a great fan, especially with those oafs who treated it as a competitive sport and tried to crush your hand!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. While I don’t recall ever getting into a handshaking contest, I do remember shaking some people’s hands and just feeling the strength exude from their hand and thinking that if they wanted to, they could crush my hand.

      Liked by 1 person

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