The importance of a Handshake

The handshake, is it a Southern thing?

Since moving up to the pacific northwest about 7 months ago, I have come to notice many of the differences in the cultures and traditions between back home in the South and here. Aside from their peculiar way of naming all of their east west streets after Northern Generals and Presidents, one seemingly simple bit of manners or etiquette that has struck me the most is the handshake, or lack thereof. I was raised, by both my mother and father that when meeting another male, the handshake was the most important aspect of that encounter.

Since settling in to our new home in Washington state, I have been meeting and being introduced to many new people, and I have been surprised by the lack of handshakes at many of those first encounters. Being raised in the southern traditions, I always extend my hand, I don’t even think about it, I just do it. But quite frequently, I extend my hand to the other person who has his hand in his pocket, and his reaction seems surprised. Now, for the most part, the older men I meet typically offer their hands for the meeting, but most of the men my age or slightly older, they never raise their hand first. This struck me odd, and has made me feel uncomfortable in some instances. There are other aspects and subtleties of the handshake, like firmness etc., but I won’t go into those.

I began to think about what the handshake is, and where it may have originated. From my search, there are several possibilities as to how the handshake became to being. From spending quite some time in Scotland several years ago, and my own personal studies of Scottish customs and traditions, I think I have a pretty good idea as to the nature of the handshake. There is a tradition in the highlands of Scotland, which developed over centuries, of passing the quaich.

The quaich was and is a traditional vessel for drinking whiskey, reserved for a specific ritual. Historically, in the highlands if a stranger or traveler came to your door, that person was invited in and offered food and shelter. One of the first customs was to pass the quaich to the newcomer. The quaich is a cup from which opposite sides extend a small tab or handle. The person offering the quaich would sip of the whiskey using his right hand to drink with ( the right hand usually being the sword wielding hand) and with his right hand pass the quaich to the newcomer, In turn the newcomer accepts the quaich with his right hand and takes a sip. This assured both home owner and visitor, that they were safe from agression and would not harm each other.

For me, this highland custom was very similar to our handshake. Both parties greeting would offer their right hand, again the hand that would wield a weapon, to assure each other no aggression, and a verbal greeting would be spoken. It also offered a simple way of making human contact. It was a way of establishing peace and friendship, and assuring that that agreement would be kept. I am sure that for the vast majority of readers here, the handshake is a normal and common part of their daily lives, but where I am living now, it seems not to be so. In this day where more of our relationships extend across the cyber-sphere, it seems the age old traditions and manners when it comes to polite a civilized interaction are beginning to wane. Call me old fashioned, but I can’t imagine this simple ritual of greeting not being a part of my way of living, and would encourage others to keep this important greeting a part of their lives.

This entry was posted in Manners, Traditions, and Etiquette and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The importance of a Handshake

  1. It is important to note that a handshake is something very specific – done in a very specific way. It is based on the long tradition that you described and it is not something that should be “updated” or changed in any way. The modern practice of “high five” or bumping clenched fists together or whatever the current urban trend is, is not a handshake.

    Thanks for a great post!

  2. Absolutely! In my experience, those first encounters which included a “traditional” handshake, lead to a further development of a friendship, or solid business relation. It is a critical part of meeting. As for the high fives and “bumps”, I agree….save that for the football game stadium.

  3. Carolina Lady says:

    Thank you so much for this article; I had never really thought about the origins of the handshake in our culture. If I ever find myself in the Pacific N.W., I’ll have to remember this, and will gladly model our exquisite Southern manners! We have lived and taught in other countries (currently China) and I have never had problems with anyone; great manners and friendly smiles take us far when dealing with other cultures!

Comments are closed.