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How Did This Whole Handshake Greeting Get Started?

Why do we shake hands?
Paul Miller - Pool, Getty Images

Shaking hands upon greeting someone new has become such a routine and automatic “Hello” response — that is, unless you’re one of those guys who bump fists or put people in head locks. As with most things, the majority of people just accept this act as customary without question, but for the rest of us, we want to know why we do it.

Some sources say it stems from the transfer of power from a god to a king. In ancient Babylonia, for example, the ruler would clasp hands with the statue of a god, signifying this divine power exchange.

A more commonly held belief is that a handshake was a means of checking another man for a weapon, being that an open right hand cannot grip a blade. Sometimes the men clasped forearms when they met, thus searching for a knife possibly hidden in the sleeve. Remember that the next time you take part in this “friendly” greeting gesture.

Here are three things to keep in mind about the etiquette of handshaking:

1. In the West, the right hand is used because of the religious associations of the left hand with the devil. Sorry to all of those left-handed folks out there.

2. In Islamic culture, the right hand is also used. The left hand is reserved for the less-than-sanitary places our fingers travel to when nature calls.

3. The style of handshake you choose can convey a different kind of message.  A vertical palm position is a sign of equality and trust. If you adopt a palm down position, you’re asserting your dominance over the other party, and conversely, a palm up position is a subtle signal of submission.

[Temple Study]

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