According to my late grandpa, there are two ways to get to know a person: 1) by his handshake, and 2) by how clean he keeps the trunk of his car. Because one measures the level of respect he has for himself and his things especially while no one is looking, and the other gauges his respect for others. So, call me old-fashioned, but even to this day, I have trouble trusting anyone person who offers their left hand to shake mine. Friend or stranger, if someone offers me a lefty handshake, I might ask them to pop their trunk, just for due diligence.
Now, with that being said, I never understood why my grandpa was so adamant about handshakes. That is, until I began working a corporate job and someone offered me a lefty handshake directly after picking their nose.
So, now let’s talk about cultural respect.
Do You Smell That? It’s Called Respect.
In the Western world, most people think like my grandpa and believe that it’s rude not to offer a right handshake. However, this might be a good time to mention that at least 75% of the world’s population is right handed. And that many people prefer to use their primary hand to wipe their ass.
Eastern World Etiquette
In many European and Asian countries, people also prefer a right handshake, as opposed to a lefty for hygienic reasons. Because in some less fortunate areas, toilet paper is a luxury. The left hand is designated for personal “clean up” while the right hand remains tidy and clean for other business. So, offering a left handshake in these places is not only seen as rude and disrespectful, but also disgusting.
Namaste: No-Hands Needed Greeting
However, in much of India, a handshake is not used at all, but replaced by a traditional namaste greeting. Some of the people in more affluent areas adopted use of the right handshake, but a majority of the population avoids hand contact altogether. This practice is not only for hygienic reasons, but also for spiritual reasons, which to explain would go way beyond the purpose of this post.
Jamaican Handshake: If a Fist Bump Could Wiggle
I recently read a post on a travel blogger’s site, which suggested that many Jamaicans use their left hand for handshakes. But from what I can tell, the blogger’s information seems to be mostly false. And most likely based on a one-time, individual experience, as opposed to a recognized, cultural tradition.
Or, perhaps those particular Jamaicans are wise, and have at least heard about the Western world’s right-handed “bathroom doo-doo-ties.”
Bad joke, eh?
But in all seriousness, it appears the Caribbean does use a right handshake most often; though, it’s not like anything I’ve ever seen before.
To me, the Jamaican handshake seems closer to a fist bump than it does to a handshake, except with a few extra wiggles. And while the extra wiggles might make an O.C.D. suffer like Howie Mandel feel uneasy, it’s a cultural tradition that is important to the Jamaican people. The handshake is right handed, and sometimes people do touch their palms together. But the hand is not as important as what each person’s thumb is doing during a handshake.
The Jamaican handshake may look like a game of thumb wars, but to each of the participants, it’s a game of honor and integrity. Each of the three flicks of the thumb signifies a special agreement between the two people for: peace, love, and respect.
African and Liberian Handshake: Adding a Quick Snap
I won’t go into detail here, but there are many interesting YouTube videos of people from Africa and Liberia using a right handshake. The handshake seems like a mix of Western and Jamaican handshakes, but always ends with a quick snap, or a chest thump at the end.
Left Handshake: Sometimes a Lefty is All-Righty
The Boy Scouts use a traditional left handshake, which often includes placing two fingers on the other person’s palm or wrist because it also makes the Boy Scout salute. This practice might make the right-handed world cringe, but there are two good reasons for it: respect and courage.
Respect: Keeping Friendship Close to the Heart
Since the human heart is on the left side of the body, using the lefty handshake signifies keeping the other person “close to the heart”. And, much like the Jamaican handshake, the Boy Scouts left handshake represents a “token of friendship” towards the other person.
Courage: It’s Safer to Lower a Sword than it is a Shield
Offering a lefty handshake shows individual courage but also trust in the other person. During battle, warriors would typically carry their sword in their right hand and their shield in their left.
Here’s an anecdote specific to the Boy Scout’s left handshake:
“The left handshake comes to us from the Ashanti warriors whom Lord Baden-Powell, the founder of Scouting, knew over 70 years ago in West Africa. He saluted them with his right hand, but the Ashanti chiefs offered their left hands and said, ‘In our land only the bravest of the brave shake hands with the left hand, because to do so we must drop our shields and our protection.’Boy Scouts Handbook and Scouting Magazine
Ironically, it’s the same countries (Indonesia and India) that don’t like to touch (left) hands, but also lead the world in having the highest number of Boy Scouts.
A Man’s Handshake is as Good as a His Word
Since this isn’t a blog post about business, I won’t go into great detail here, but I will say that using a firm handshake is important. Not just in business, but also in personal dealings.
According to my grandpa, a man’s handshake is like his signature; his blood oath, and just as good, if not better than having a written document. Because even a robot can sign on a dotted line, but it takes real character, human integrity and trust to make an agreement knowing there’s no physical proof for later.
No One Likes a Wet or a Limp Fish Handshake
According to my grandpa, a limp fish, or god-forbid, a wet handshake, is one of worst forms of disrespect towards another person. A limp handshake symbolizes a person’s uncertainty, dishonesty, lack of confidence, and often evokes an automatic distrust between the two people. Perhaps because it seems shady, like crossing fingers for good luck, which some people also use to hide from the guilt of a “little white lie” they told.
In many Chinese and Japanese cultures, a quick, limp handshake, with or without a customary bow, is the preferred method of greeting someone. A handshake, much like a hug for some people, feels awkward.
Here’s a blogger’s explanation of the Japanese bow, along with some of my English language corrections found in [brackets]:
“A Japanese bow […] serves the purpose of the handshake (in business), is a show [sign] of respect (bowing before elders or an audience), shows hierarchical standing, and can serve as a part of an apology. The type of bow will be different in each instance, dependent [depending] on [the] angle, head position relative to the other person, time holding the bow, standing/kneeling/head to ground, etc.”Osamu Saito (Quora)
“When in Rome, do as the Romans Do”
After all my research, perhaps this old quote is still the best advice I can offer anyone who feels just as confused as I do about handshake etiquette. Because it’s a lot to remember. But just like the quote’s meaning, using proper handshake etiquette really just comes down to one thing: respect.
When traveling abroad, do whatever comes naturally, but still try to follow the traditional way(s) of greeting someone in that area.
Going with the Flow
A handshake should feel natural and not awkward for either party. If it does, it should be avoided completely.
Simply put, follow the cultural norm, wherever you are.
And for the love of all things holy, don’t forget to wash your hands.