Wednesday, April 9, 2008

shake hands our way

When two American adults meet for the first time, or when they know each other but not well enough to hug, they usually put their right hands together. Especially if they're men. As a handbook on American customs posted on a University of Texas-Arlington web site says, "Some men might not shake hands with women unless the woman extends her hand first. Hand-shaking among women occurs even less frequently."

Now, here's the rest of what that handbook for foreign visitors says about how "we" shake hands--is this really how all of us shake hands?

When Americans shake hands, they normally exert a small amount of pressure on each others' hands, move their clasped hands a bit upwards, then a bit downwards, then release their grip. People from other places where handshaking is customary may hold the other person's hand more or less firmly than Americans do, sustaining contact for a shorter or a longer time than Americans. One's character in the U.S. is often assumed by the appropriateness of their handshake.

Obviously, many African American men in particular have other ways of putting their hands together, and other racial groups do as well (though I'll admit, I don't know what forms the latter take). So this visitor's handbook may be explaining the "normal" American method, but it's really the "white" method. Adopting it, and dropping any other "ethnic" greeting gestures, has been another way in which immigrants have adapted in order to assimilate. Shaking hands this way is a custom that originated in Europe, perhaps as a way of showing that the hand doesn't contain a weapon (this would also explain why the right hand is always used). In the U.S., it's specific European origins became whitewashed into an "American" custom, and since, until the 20th Century, the real Americans were openly labeled "white Anglo-Saxon" Americans, the standard handshake became a white custom.

What's more interesting, though, about differences in handshaking techniques is that if a white and a non-white person encounter each other in a casual setting and decide to clasp hands, there may be uncertainty about which handshaking method to use--the one that's become the standard, "white" one, or a common non-white one. When there is uncertainty about which to use, the fall-back is usually the standard handshake, that is, the method more likely to be used by the white person than by the one used by some non-white people. The non-white person often represses a preferred method of contact, and the white person feels little if any discomfort about being the enforcer of a standard.


  1. I'd love to shake hands the way black people shake hands. The problem is, they'd have to teach a course. It's so complex with so many variations and diverse subsets of the process.

    Oh, and I am NOT a white anglo-saxon. My people are mostly Celtic in origin. . . but hell, I'vbe never been too offended to be called an "anglo" or "engleise" even though I give those asshole Indian friends of mine hell for doing it. The black guys usually just call me "dumb honky" or "Charlie." I keep telling them, "my name isn't "Charlie."

  2. Thank you for pointing this out. I'm a whitie who's never thought of my handshaking this way. It's something to think about. I do wish I could learn a black handshake.

  3. I like this blog.
    First, white people need to acknowlege other cultures do different things.
    Secondly, white people need to acknowledge there is VALUE in knowing the different things other cultures do.
    Thirdly, white people need to realize the white way of doing things is not necessarily the only way or the correct way or the best way of doing things.

    However, part of me thinks this blog could be viewed as racist. The thing about white people leaving better tips (though documented) could be interpreted as white people are better.

  4. Excellent points, anonymous, I couldn't have put it better.

    If people interpret that post on tipping practices as racist, they need to read it more carefully.

  5. I'm black and I use the "normal American handshake", and so does every other person of color I know. The vast majority of black people don't have a problem with the regular hand shake, nor do we feel that all white people should learn "our" way of shaking hands, just like we don't expect them all to say "what's up dawg" instead of "hello". Last time I checked, there was no standard black hand shake. I understand that many white people take for granted that many Eurocentric traditions are considered normal, but in this case I don't think there's anything to worry about.

  6. White is normal in America. Why is this a hard concept? You make up some eleven to thirteen percent of the population, yet you consistently act as though this country were 50/50 white/black. Not so. We have more Hispanics than blacks. Go away.

  7. Macon, I have to say, this post of yours is so unbelievable funny that I can't even contain myself.

    Do you really think that the high five and the dap are ancient African cultural customs!!!


  8. No Kathy, I don't think that, and didn't write that? What in the world are you going on about??

  9. Hi Macon. While its true that in general assimilated Americans will judge someone's worth (at least, superficially and initially) on the strength of their handshake - the same is true of other greeting customs in other cultures. The skill with which a bow is executed in Asian cultures (appropriate depth, speed, conformation of arms, level of gaze) is likewise taken to be a measure of one's character and breeding. Fortunately for non-Asians, these subtleties are less important for us in those situations; the mere attempt at a bow indicates we're of better stock than our hillbilly countrymen.

  10. jaydub,

    You seem to know the specifics of an "Asian bow" (e.g., "appropriate depth, speed, conformation of arms, level of gaze", "a measure of one's character and breeding"), yet you're very unspecific about which culture you're enlightening us about (Asia is a continent containing 47 countries). It's as if you have more knowledge of Asian handshakes than any Asian in Asia.

  11. YES! "Enforcer of a standard"! Can you do another one about chrisianity being made an "invisible" standard in the US? I was trying to explain atheist vitriol to someone who might have been nominally christian. but most members of such whitewashed/normalized members of society have no understanding of how the way they operate in the world alienates EVERYONE ELSE and even comes off as aggressive. What they do is like the cultural equivalent of asking someone if they stopped beating their wife yet. There is no "good" answer because the QUESTION is bad (poorly framed by a limited perspective). But because they are never made to feel the same discomfort that they bring on everyone else, there is little understanding and certainly no empathy in the interaction.


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