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Why Do We Shake Hands?

It’s an action so ingrained in our lives that we hardly stop to consider it — or we didn’t until the COVID-19 pandemic made us rethink personal contact. Before that, greeting people with one arm outstretched was a near-universal gesture, used in instances as varied as closing a business deal and meeting an acquaintance for the first time. But how did clasping hands come to be such a basic ritual? Here, we look back at how handshaking began.

Ancient Roots

Stone depiction of King Shalmaneser III of Assyria meeting a Babylonian.

One of the earliest documented handshakes in human civilization dates back to the ninth century BCE, when the Assyrian King Shalmaneser III was depicted clasping hands with a Babylonian ruler on a stone relief. It’s believed that the action was used to mark an alliance. Around the same time, the poet Homer used the gesture in his epic works the Iliad and the Odyssey (estimated to have been written around the eighth century BCE) to show mutual trust. Coins in ancient Rome also showed handshakes, perhaps depicting friendship or loyalty.

Handshaking even appeared in funerary art from the ancient Greco-Roman world, where it may indicate a farewell to the living or the bond between the living and dead. However, one study in the American Journal of Archaeology found that the handshaking gesture in the art of ancient Greek, Roman, and Etruscan societies (both funerary and non-funerary) was mostly used to show “parting, meeting, and agreement,” as well as being associated with marriage.

“We Come in Peace”

Close up of a sword on steel chain mail.
Credit: Moussa81/ iStock

Today, it’s popularly believed that the handshake grew out of a desire to show peaceful intentions. Since swords were often carried in a scabbard on the left side of the body, right arms were used to draw weapons. Approaching with an open right hand extended was thus a display of trust, showing that one’s hand was weapon-free. Some have also suggested that the handshake itself began as a means to ensure that any knives or daggers tucked up in a sleeve would be forced to fall out.

Another line of thinking takes it a step further, saying that by clasping hands together, the two parties are symbolically showing their bond. “An agreement can be expressed quickly and clearly in words, but it is only made effective by a ritual gesture: open, weaponless hands stretched out toward one another, grasping each other in a mutual handshake,” the historian Walter Burkert has written. Thus the handshake is not only about the lack of a weapon, but a physical act of connection between two people.

Pure Instinct?

Two dogs on leashes sniffing each other's noses.
Credit: krblokhin/ iStock

While its ancient meanings may be tied to making alliances or proving peaceful intentions, the common modern usage as a greeting is thought to go back to the Quakers. While a tip of the hat, a bow, or a curtsy had long been used as a greeting in centuries past, the handshake came about around the 17th or 18th centuries to abolish any sense of hierarchy — since those earlier greetings were often performed only by those with lower status in deference to those above them. By contrast, the Quakers “[used] the practice of the handshake, extended to everyone regardless of station, as we do still,” the historian Michael Zuckerman writes in the journal Early American Studies.

That said, there may also be an element of animal instincts involved. When hundreds of volunteers were filmed shaking hands in a 2015 Israeli study by the Weizmann Institute of Science, about a quarter were seen subtly sniffing their hands afterwards. This has led scientists to speculate that there might be some sort of biological reason for sniffing people out, much like animals do. Notably, those who shook hands with someone of the same gender were shown to sniff their shaking hand more often, while those who shook hands with someone of the opposite gender smelled their non-shaking hand — and most of the sniffing occurred when the experimenter left the room. (To ensure those people were actually sniffing and not just touching or scratching, the study actually measured airflow into the nose.)

“I am convinced that this is just the tip of the iceberg,” researcher Noam Sobel told New Scientist. “This is just one more instance where chemo signaling is a driving force in human behavior … When we were coding the videos we would see people sniffing themselves just like rats. It’s like blindsight – you see it all the time but you just don’t think of it.” It’s not yet clear, however, exactly what kind of chemical information humans might be picking up and passing on when they shake hands.

The Future of Handshakes

A man and a woman bumping elbows in greeting.
Credit: NgKhanhVuKhoa/ iStock

As it did with so many things, the COVID-19 pandemic changed our approach to handshakes, especially when the United States’ premier infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci warned against it. “As a society, just forget about shaking hands,” he said in early April 2020. “We don’t need to shake hands. We’ve got to break that custom because, as a matter of fact, that is really one of the major ways that you can transmit a respiratory-borne illness.”

Though elbow bumps quickly took over as the safer alternative to pressing palms, Ella Al-Shamahi, author of The Handshake: A Gripping History, is confident that they’ll return. “As a basic unit of touch, nothing works as well as the handshake — it allows us to transmit chemosignals, build trust, gesture quickly and universally, and send positive signals of agreement, unity, and acceptance,” she writes in The Guardian. “Anything as deeply entrenched in our culture, biology and probably DNA as the handshake is, quite frankly, going nowhere.”

Featured image credit: cottonbro/ Pexels

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