Shaking on it

Appearing in the Australian, July 2020

The Handshake: A Gripping History
By Ella Al-Shamahi
Allen & Unwin, $30, 176 pages, ISBN 9781788167802

Ah, what’s in a handshake? Quite a lot, according to this sparky, well-researched book. Ella Al-Shamahi is an evolutionary biologist and archaeologist who dabbles in stand-up comedy – interesting combination! – and in The Handshake: A Gripping History she looks at her subject from a variety of perspectives. Her knowledge, enthusiasm and sense of humour make for an enjoyable mix.

She is (aside from the unique CV) well-placed to do it. She was raised as a fundamentalist Moslem (in Birmingham, UK), and physical contact between women and unrelated men was forbidden. When she moved away from her faith in her twenties and began shaking hands, she was struck by the social importance of it, as well as the sheer enjoyment of an act that can bridge the gap between strangers. The handshake used to be a male-only thing but now it extends across gender boundaries.

Al-Shamahi notes that chimps and some other primates shake hands, and it seems to have the function of ‘let’s make up’ after a conflict, similar to one type of handshake amongst humans. Isolated tribes that have had no contact with the modern word often shake hands as well.

Another purpose of a handshake is to seal a deal. Al-Shamahi points to a ninth-century sculptured relief from Iraq that shows two kings shaking hands. Even now, successful negotiations in business or politics are wrapped up with handshakes all round.

But the most common form is the handshake as greeting. It probably stems from the idea of each participant showing that they are not carrying a weapon, although it is also connected to the closeness involved. The palms are intensely wired with sensory receptors, and movement of the skin releases oxytocin, a social bonding hormone. There is, says Al-Shamahi, “no room for anything other than positivity in the handshake”.

For this reason, the coronavirus-era fist-bump or elbow-bump simply do not measure up. Al-Shamahi believes that the handshake will re-emerge once the pandemic is past. She notes that handshakes have been socially or legally prohibited in earlier pandemics, like the Spanish Flu, but came roaring back as soon as possible.

But if shaking hands is somehow rooted in our DNA, how is it that there are some cultures, such as Japan and Thailand, that do not do it? Al-Shamahi speculates that there may have been protracted epidemics in the past in those countries, and as a result alternatives, such as the Japanese bow, evolved. Well, maybe. Al-Shamahi does not feel any obligation to explain absolutely everything, and her telling of the rollicking  story is the richer for it.

Of course, Al-Shamahi devotes a chapter to the right way to shake hands, including choreography, grip, the all-important eye contact, duration, and eventual release. Someone has actually developed a formula for this but Al-Shamahi takes the view that you should largely follow your instincts, with a measure of social sensitivity. “Get in with a smile and some warmth,” she advises. “The handshake is not the endgame. Human connection is. So that is how you shake hands. Godspeed.”

There have been many occasions where a handshake has resonated beyond the act itself. The 1985 handshake between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev was one, signalling the beginning of the end of the Cold War. Another was that between Nelson Mandela and South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar in 1995, bringing a divided nation together. Princess Diana shaking hands with a dying AIDS patient was an intimate moment that changed how the world perceived the disease.

On the other hand, there have been some real shockers. The handshake between Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler ended badly for all concerned. US President William McKinley was assassinated by someone who got close under the pretence of shaking his hand. The 2015 handshake between Raoul Castro and Barack Obama was, according to Al-Shamahi, “an unchoreographed mess”. But in terms of rating awful handshakes, she gives the award to Donald Trump, whose 29-second grip on Japanese PM Shinzo Abe set something of a benchmark.

All this is good fun as well as being insightful and informative. It makes you look forward to the time when handshakes can again be a part of our lives. Start counting down the days.

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