January 19th, 2021

What will become of a handshake?


By MABLE STEWART on November 25, 2020.

While growing up, it was expected of me to acknowledge those who came to our home. I had to excuse myself from whatever I was doing to exchange a greeting, which involved shaking hands. Similarly so, when I would chance upon someone familiar to my family while I was out in the community. According to my mother’s teachings, it was rude to ignore anyone I had been introduced to, young or old.
When an act becomes second nature, it’s almost impossible to imagine doing otherwise. Practising proper handshakes with eye contact and a smile became that to me.
So, it was a big surprise, on one occasion in Montreal in the late ’90s when I extended a hand to someone I had gotten to know rather well through phone calls and emails, that my greeting was rejected. This was during my time employed as a personal assistant to a businessman well respected in his community.
As his PA, I was responsible for arranging his business affairs and communicating with his associates near and far. I was also tasked with writing letters and emails to his family around the world. He had a nephew he was particularly fond of who lived in Israel. Through our regular communications we became friendly to each other. Our families’ well-being became part of our conversations.
When my employer passed away, I got in touch with his dear nephew, who didn’t waste any time catching a flight to be present for the funeral. I was excited to finally put a face to the voice I had become so familiar with. As soon as I saw him, I extended my hand in greeting which wasn’t reciprocated.
I felt slighted and confused. What added to my confusion was the fact that we rode in the same vehicle to the funeral, and he was kind and friendly towards me.
When we arrived to where the service was being held, one of his cousins from Florida extended her hand to greet him and quickly pulled it back with an apology. This further added to my confusion. She gave me a shy smile and a wink.
After the funeral I asked her what the handshake mystery was all about. She explained that her cousin, being a Rabbi, didn’t shake hands with women. Hearing the explanation cleared up my confusion, and added to my cultural understanding.
This experience motivated me to learn of other forms of greetings. I decided I was going to familiarize myself with many, as I didn’t want to make the same mistake.
For example, I learned that the Maori people greeted others by pressing their foreheads and noses together, and that gesture could be followed with a handshake. They may also treat distinguished guests with a Haka, which is their ceremonial dance.
In the Japanese culture, a bow is done while saying a greeting. It can be informal, formal or very formal. The types of bowing emphasize respect and social ranking. During the bow, the positioning of the hands is determined by the status of the person one is bowing to, and the context of the gesture.
Within the South African culture, it is important to extend a greeting to everyone upon meeting, which is a sign of respect. The greeting is usually a handshake, eye contact and smile. Those from the rural villages tend to use two hands in their handshake, which portrays warmth.
In Southern Europe, cheek kissing is a standard form of greeting although it varies from country to country. In Spain and Portugal, women kiss both men and women, while men typically only kiss women. However, in Italy it is not uncommon for men to cheek kiss men.
Greeting etiquette evolves through time and other circumstances. During the Jane Austen days, a gentleman had to wait until a lady extended her hand for a handshake, and a kiss on her hand was acceptable.
I wonder if we are seeing the end of traditional handshakes, forehead and nose pressing, or cheek kissing. Will bowing, or the traditional Indian greeting – made by bringing the palms together before the face or chest – known as a Namaskar, while expressing “Namaste” become the most acceptable way of greeting in the future?
Mable Stewart is a Lethbridge-based etiquette and image consultant. She can be contacted by email at helpfuletiquette@gmail.com.

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