With COVID-19 rearing its ugly head across the world, this 3000-year-old cultural fixture has ended…or is at least on indefinite hiatus.

Many cultures utilize the handshake. In Switzerland, when meeting a group of people, proper etiquette calls for shaking with women before men. In China, the eldest person is offered the first handshake. In Korea, handshakes are typically loose and weak. In some African cultures, an extended handshake announces a private conversation between two people. In Liberia, people snap their fingers when ending a handshake. In Morocco, it is customary to first kiss one another’s cheeks before any handshaking begins. But…


There’s something uniquely American about the handshake. For many of us, learning the proper technique is a right-of-passage. Rules vary, but ignoring them means a weak handshake. And a weak handshake often means a weak impression.

You could argue that no culture values a firm, confident handshake more that of the United States. Etiquette guides dedicate entire chapters to it. Body language experts claim a handshake reveals the secrets of the human psyche. Psychologists have conducted in-depth studies demonstrating the importance of a handshake in first impressions. Million-dollar-deals have been won or lost based on handshakes.

What are the rules? Stand when shaking hands and make eye contact. Greet the person verbally while shaking hands (“Pleased to meet you”). Don’t grip too early, but wait until your palm is securely seated in their’s. Grip firmly, not weakly, but don’t crush the other person’s hand. A crushing grip conveys a desire to dominate or impress, not respect and confidence. Grip as firmly as you might grip a baseball. Pump the hand up and down three times for no more than five seconds and then release.

Does that laundry list of technique seem more like computer instructions than guidelines for a common gesture? It might. But, if you’ve been taught how to shake hands properly and have the misfortune of experiencing the weak, dead-fish handshake, then it doesn’t seem so silly.

The most commonly repeated myth behind the rise of the handshake in symbolizing a greeting or agreement harkens back to the Middle Ages. While serfs had no need of such gestural finery, nobility would greet each other by firmly grasping the other’s right wrist. For most nobility, the right hand would have been their dominate fighting hand. Grasping one another’s dominate hand symbolized trust and amicability between two noblemen…by proving no one concealed a weapon.

In fact, handshakes date back much further than the Middle Ages. Homer’s Iliad—which dates to roughly 800 BC—contains many references to the handshake as a symbol of agreements or oaths, an offer comfort to the bereaved, or as a pledge of trust. The gesture became so common in the artwork of antiquity that art historians gave its portrayal a name: dexiosis.

In the 1600s, a Scottish author visiting expressed disgust at the English habit of greeting others with a deep, dramatic bow and then by kissing their hands (in the days before hand washing and modern germ theory). Instead, the Scotsman said the English should adopt the “good olde Scottish shaking of the two right hands…” A few decades later, the Quakers, respected for their progressive views on equality regardless of class, abandoned bowing and began handshaking as a clear demonstration of mutual respect and reverence for men and women of ANY station.


Chasing the history of the handshake is like chasing a rainbow; its origins and evolution are obscured by cultural bias and the myopia of history. You could argue that the handshake has been around so long it might as well be considered an early form of universal sign language.

Wherever and whenever the handshake began, its use has come to a sudden halt. Its fate rests in this grand slam of factors: a human population versed in the germ theory of disease; effective methods of quarantine; a new, communicable flu virus; and today’s near-instant spread of information. For almost two months, COVID-19 has swallowed the news cycle. There’s no question why handshaking went from socially acceptable to socially abhorrent so quickly.

The question is, will the handshake come back?

If you enjoyed this story, check out Hoosier Tales: 50 Unknown Stories from Indiana, or Inventing Indiana, both available in paperback and Kindle versions at Amazon.