Why Do We Do That: Shaking Hands

  • Time to read 1 minute
Two girls shaking hands

The handshake is one of the most recognized and ingrained of all the polite behaviors.

Cartoon of man patting down another man

In case, you need a refresher, here’s how it works:

  1. Face the person you’re addressing.
  2. Extend your right hand and grasp the addressee’s right hand firmly, but not too tightly.
  3. Shake the hand up and down two or three times then release.

A good handshake is an almost universal sign of civility, and why? Because most probably two people wanted to make sure they weren’t going to be attacked.

In earlier times, when men were more likely to wear pig iron instead of Polos, determining one’s intentions was literally a matter of life-and-death. Concealed and not-so-concealed blades could end a meeting before it had begun. Thus, as a sign of one’s intentions, two men would grasp hands or forearms to search for weapons. Not only could a good handshake reveal whether someone was a threat, it reaffirmed friendly intentions. After all, it’s hard to grip a blade when your hand is open. As both time and social manners progressed, the need to frisk an acquaintance became unnecessary—except for police, of course—but the behavior remained, evolving from a means of self-preservation into a one of friendly introduction.

But there’s more.

Though handshakes all look pretty much the same in our country, they’re quite different around the world. For example, while Americans typically shake with a firm, right hand grip some Asian cultures actually prefer a softer grip. And positioning is also important. When someone shakes hands with their palm facing up, it signifies trustworthiness; a palm facing down asserts dominance.

And why is the right hand the correct hand to shake with?

There are two basic reasons handshakes are performed with the right: superstition and sanitation. In Western countries, the right hand is customarily used because of the prevalence of right-handedness. And because old religious beliefs held that the left hand had demonic—even Satanic—associations. In fact, in old French, the word sinister originally meant “left.” In Islamic cultures, the right hand is used because the left is reserved for use with more unsightly activities when “nature calls.”