Greetings Earthling! Rather than aliens, most of us shake hands when we meet. Well in most cultures anyhow. But why?
Behind every behavior there are four potential explanations:
- It’s been done to solve a tangible and practical problem.
- It’s a habit (and thus an automatic response to a cue).
- It’s been done for no particular reason — it’s random (or a compulsion).
- It’s done for social purposes.
Let’s look at #4 as it relates to something we do unconsciously every day: shaking hands. An alien observer watching two individuals reach out and clasp each other’s hands could be excused for coming up with a practical explanation for why it’s done (explanation 1). They could say that the individuals are grabbing each other’s hands to stabilize themselves, since slowing down and standing on two small limbs is tricky. They could also hypothesize that some chemical or energy is passing through the clasped appendages, allowing these human creatures to collect needed resources. Or they could think that the up and down movement of the limbs is a form of exercise that these humanoid creatures are engaging in.
One popular theory is that the gesture began as a way of conveying peaceful intentions. By extending their empty right hands, strangers could show that they were not holding weapons and bore no ill will toward one another. Some even suggest that the up-and-down motion of the handshake was supposed to dislodge any knives or daggers that might be hidden up a sleeve. Yet another explanation is that the handshake was a symbol of good faith when making an oath or promise. When they clasped hands, people showed that their word was a sacred bond. Unfortunately, the aliens, no matter how smart they may be, would in this case be wrong.
We all know that handshakes are done as a social greeting, so that each of the parties can signal to each other that they understand the social customs of the environment. Perhaps there are other social purposes as well, such as increasing the comfort between the two shakers, but the primary aim of such acts seems to be social signaling.
What are you signaling when you properly shake someone’s hand? You are first of all signaling that you are part of the same culture. The handshake customs in different cultures vary quite a bit (weak vs. firm grip, and so on), and so by adapting your response to the individual at hand, you are signaling your understanding of, if not membership of, a shared culture. You are also signaling that you are intelligent, since you have successfully picked up and learned these social cues from your observations and experience.
Those that don’t return our dangling hands, or return them improperly, are seen as odd or rude. Odd individuals are either those that are so nerdy and intelligent that they’re oblivious to worldly matters, like hand squeezing, or those that are so dull that they just don’t “get it.” Rude individuals are either those that understand the customs, but decide they are above them, or those that don’t understand the customs and don’t really seem to be interested in learning them. As you can see, an improper handshake signals either a lack of empathy or intelligence, two traits that are incredibly important for business and personal dealings.
You want to do business with sharpest people possible, and you want to make sure your clique is filled with lovely and caring people. That’s why seemingly odd or superfluous behaviors are anything but superfluous. They help us determine, in a very short period of time, the characteristics of the people we’re dealing with. A hand shake speaks a thousand words perhaps?
But if you stop all that handshaking for a moment and take a closer look at the health view of things behind this gesture, things might not seem quite so pleasant. This is in part because the human body contains many different types of bacteria. Some are good and we rely on these to help keep us healthy. Others are not so good and might make us sick.
We constantly gain and lose bacteria and so we are never sure when we might pick up an infection. Surfaces act as a route of transmission for bacteria and therefore every time we touch a surface we share bacteria unknowingly. This is why the risk of picking up an infectious disease is increased in places such as toilet seats. But have you ever thought about what bacteria you share when shaking somebody’s hand?
According to research from the University of Colorado, on average we carry 3,200 bacteria from 150 different species on our hands. And yet, shaking hands can be an everyday occurrence. It is considered to be an accepted means of greeting people and is the epitome of politeness in diverse cultures – especially in the Western world. As well as being a means of greeting people, it is also used to build rapport and trust with people. Ignoring a handshake is deemed to be impolite and rude.
Research has shown that on average, we will shake hands on average 15,000 times in our lifetime. So there are lots of opportunities for spreading bacteria between people – particularly if they are carrying potentially infectious bacteria that could make us ill. This includes faecal bacteria, which is quite common on hands.
This risk increases even further when we don’t wash our hands regularly – which is why good hand hygiene is essential. And of course, if the bacteria are resistant to antibiotics then we could inadvertently playing a role in spreading antibiotic resistance within our environment.
Ok, I’m washing my hands after every meeting…
Check out my related post: Why do we use straws?