Handshakes are a wonderful thing. A single touch conveys peace, trust, and friendship (or power, money, and success—depending, of course, on your intentions). Regardless of intention, though, a handshake is generally read as a sign of respect. A sign so glaring, it would be unusual to forgo. Because whether or not you desire to show trust and respect (or appear to do so), a handshake is tradition. And for centuries, has been so.
The oldest handshake is depicted in an ancient Mesopotamian ninth-century BCE relief, between the Kings of Babylon and Assyria. At this time, wrapped, weaponless hands symbolized peace and alliance. And the up-and-down motion was thought to displace any hidden blades. In ancient Greece, handshakes were emblazoned on assorted funerary art forms—vases, tombs, and cenotaphs—as final family farewells. In the East, touchless salutes, like the Confucius “fist and palm” in ancient China and the “namaste” gesture of ancient India have dominated, but in the U.S., the Quakers adopted the “democratic” handshake over British bowing. This is how our modern, American handshake came to be.
I, however, am no particular adherent.
Handshakes, while treated as such in American culture, are not for everyone. To me, handshakes create an opportunity for something brand new: awkwardness. They are an offer of warmth, not to my soul or heart, but to my rapidly reddening face and sweaty palms. Unfortunately, this unease is not limited to the physical gesture itself. The creeping dread from the pre-handshake liminal space is worse.
In my religion, men and women are not meant to shake hands (or physically touch) if not part of the immediate family. This practice comes from a prophetic narration, stating “That a nail of iron driven into the head of one of you is better for him than touching a woman that is not allowed for him” (At-Tabarāni, no. 486). My religion forbids the act only with the opposite sex, so explaining the reason why I can’t partake in a handshake to merely an acquaintance can feel excessive. Thus, I eschew handshakes to honor my beliefs, but also for my own convenience.
Unfortunately, avoiding an awkward handshake (or any of its siblings: the fist bump, the high-five, and the hug) is not always possible. In those cases, I try to prepare for the handshake moment in advance. Living on an American college campus for three years, I’ve developed an intuition for how others will act. All I need to do then is choose the right maneuver (or detour) for the occasion. Yet, no matter my experience, handshake etiquette will always be a jungle for me to navigate.
When I first came to campus, I questioned whether avoiding a handshake—or any other touch-based greeting—was worth it. Did a blasé, two-second act merit so much forethought? I believed it did, and promised myself I would avoid handshakes at all costs. That pact with myself still stands. My mistake was inscribing it in sand.
My first handshake took place on move-in day. Walking up the steps of Old Campus’ Lanman-Wright courtyard, I saw my FroCo, hand already extended. “I can’t make a bad first impression on my very first day,” I remember telling myself. So I reached over for his hand. It wasn’t an equal handshake. His full hand clasped over the tips of my fingers, over what little real estate I could sell to complete the handshake. Pulling away, I found my hand brushing itself back and forth against the fabric of my jeans, in disagreement with what I had just done. That handshake likely meant nothing to him. I tried to act as if it meant nothing to me too.
It’s unusual to put so much emphasis on a handshake, an act of grasping for another’s extremities and flapping those limbs in the air. Imagine if we valued a hip bump or a knee tap the same. Wouldn’t we all rather stave off the awkward moment, even if our personal reasons for doing so differ? Even though handshakes are so commonplace, not everyone may want to parktake—whether it be because of general hygiene, COVID-19, religion, or otherwise. I choose not to shake hands for religious reasons, but that also does not mean all Muslims practice the same. We shouldn’t assume everyone we run into will accept our handshake, but we also shouldn’t assume they won’t. We live on a campus with a diverse body of students, with a diverse set of personal preferences. All this to say, if someone refuses a handshake, it isn’t a refusal of friendship or respect. It’s refusing to compromise on a set of boundaries one has placed for themselves. Handshakes might not cross a line for you per se, but other things will. Recognizing that all of us may not fit into the same mold or follow the same “traditions” is the real sign of respect.