Whatever happened to …

… handshakes?

This will be a post that could have been written in the future but it’s applicable today and likely into the future. I actually shook hands this morning.

Your guess – is he looking me in the eye or is he eyeing the treat in my hand?

Except for him though, I can’t recall the last time I shook hands.

But, I learned young that was how you greeted someone. My dad, a banker, modelled it all the time. You don’t just say “Hi!”, you get up, go over and shake their hand. Skin to skin contact was important. At the same time, you need to make eye contact.

When I was in Scouts, one of the things I learned was that I was doing it wrong. I learned that good Scouts always shook with their left hand because it symbolically meant that you put down your shield as a sign of trust for who you’re shaking hands with. Of course, it assumed that everyone was right handed, with weapon in the right and shield in the left.

But, that was the only place you’d do that. If you offered your left hand to a person, they’d be awkward about accepting it unless they had been a scout as well.

I think we’re all recognizing that the handshake may be long gone once society returns to its new normal.

As I think about this, I think of some memorable handshakes in my life.

  • my previous doctor on my last visit to him. He never did but he shook my hand that day. Sadly, he has since passed away
  • my new doctor always shakes hands when she comes into the room. I suspect that will change going forward
  • at every graduation – elementary school, high school, two universities – I shook hands as I received my diplomas
  • related to this, after every hockey, football, or basketball game when the two teams line up and do the “good game, good game, good game” routine. To be truthful, it’s not really a handshake, it’s more of a slap or tap
  • at every wedding I ever attended in the receiving line. Nothing more tiring though than my own wedding where I shook hands with everyone
  • when I signed my contract at my school and got a tour of the school. I must have really had the Adrenalin flowing as it’s a standing joke between myself and the Automotive teacher that I “almost broke his hand” when introduced

For a Sunday, your thoughts…

  • when was the last time you shook hands?
  • did you belong to an organization where you shook with the left hand? Is it just Scouts?
  • do you have any memorable handshakes in your life?
  • will you continue to shake hands after all this is over?
  • if you won’t, what will you do instead?
  • if you won’t and someone extends a hand to you, how will you respond?

I’d be most interested in your thoughts on this. Please share them in the comments below.

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Author: dougpete

The content of this blog is generated by whatever strikes my fancy at any given point. It might be computers, weather, political, or something else in nature. I experiment and comment a lot on things so don't take anything here too seriously; I might change my mind a day later but what you read is my thought and opinion at the time I wrote it! My personal website is at: http://www.dougpeterson.ca Follow me on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/dougpete I'm bookmarking things at: http://www.diigo.com/user/dougpete

6 thoughts on “Whatever happened to …”

  1. What an interesting post, Doug! I’ll admit that I hug more than handshake, and I have no idea what life will be like without hugs. My last handshake was probably last June when I interviewed for my current teaching position. Or, it might have been when our superintendent came to visit our classroom in the Fall. Hmmm … It’s usually in these more formal professional situations that I shake hands. I’m not sure if any other option will work the same, but not shaking hands in these situations also seems off. It’s almost like there’s something missing. Curious to know if someone has a good solution for this. Thanks for the Sunday morning post!



  2. An interesting question, Doug, in interesting times.

    I have never heard of the left hand/shield-hand handshake rationale before. My understanding has always been that the handshake with the right hand is done to demonstrate that your weapon hand is empty. In a world where the majority is right handed, we all learn to extend our right hands to shake when greeting someone formally. That’s what I’ve always done. Of course, for those of us in the minority, the accepted convention doesn’t necessarily guarantee that our weapon hand is empty.

    Now, let’s juxtapose the origin of the right hand handshake convention with the reality of what I experienced when I took up the sport of fencing at uni. There’s a good deal of holdover ritual that remains today in the pre- and post-bout ceremony. Prior to the bout, you offer a salute to your opponent, mask off, raising your sword up vertically, pommel in front of your face and then sweeping the blade down and away to your side. Following the friendly battle, you remove your mask and meet at the centre of the piste for the handshake. And that’s where the convention is shattered. Fencers shake hands with their non-weapon hand. In other words, you’re standing there with a weapon ready in your weapon hand, no bones about it, and you both shake hands, as a sign of goodwill and sportsmanship, with your non-dominant hand!

    This is what we were taught as part of the ceremony associated with the sport.

    In looking for a bit of a rationale behind this I found the following this morning on the Internet:
    • Your weapon hand is covered with a glove, and shaking hands with a glove is rude.
    • Your weapon hand is covered with a sweaty glove, and sweaty gloves are stinky.
    • In modern fencing, your sword arm has a wire running down the sleeve, and the wire is plugged into your sword, and it is cumbersome to unplug your sword for the handshake. Even though you’re taking time to respect the ceremony surrounding the sport, you do need to quickly get fencers on and off the piste so that the next bout can get underway.
    • You don’t want to adversely effect your opponent’s weapon hand, nor do you want your own to be damaged from a hard squeeze.
    • (Going way back) Your opponent can clearly see your sword in your sword hand, and that you are not holding a shield in your off hand, but by shaking with your off hand, you demonstrate that you are not holding a dagger!

    The first three above (glove, sweaty glove, and body wire) make the most sense in hindsight, but our fencing coach, Ken Wood, an ex-pat Brit with a military background, told us tongue-in-cheek that we shake with the off weapon hand while always keeping a close eye on the opponent in case they try to pull a fast one, and so you always have your weapon ready to poke them in the gut.

    Now, while we’re still reminiscing about handshakes within the fencing context, let’s circle back to the fact that as a fencer, I was left-handed. So that meant I shook with my right hand, which having grown up in polite Canadian society, was very natural for me. So far so good. However, the majority of my opponents were used to shaking hands at the end of the bout with their offhand (their left) — and were also are used to receiving a handshake from their opponent’s left hand. Novice fencers (myself included when I was a novice) invariably got very confused in sorting out a left-right handshake — somebody needs to do something in order to make the grip work. Over time, I learned to help ease the confusion of the interchange by extending my right hand rotated 180° inwards (my right palm facing outwards, thumb down) ready to meet the extended left hand. Veterans understand and handshakes proceeded quickly. Novices, however, were frequently confused. You could also tell they were confused at the beginning of the bout the first time they first met a left-handed fencer, because suddenly everything for them, for some unknown reason, was reversed. (We were fortunate to have two left-handed fencers on our team of three, which not only meant we had an initial advantage against teams who had no left-handed fencers to practice against, but it also meant we were both well-practised against fencing another left-handed fencer, something that that a solitary leftie on another team would not be able to do on a regular basis.)

    I know we could go down a rabbit hole discussing all sorts of things related to left-handedness (the whole sinister/gauche (words for left) and the fact that my grandmother, born in the late 1800s, had been forced to have her left hand tied behind her back so that she would learn to write with her right hand), but that’s digressing significantly. Lefties learn to accommodate in a right handed world. Statistically, on average our life expectancy is 4-5 years less, however we can take some solace in the left-brain right-brain theories, and revel in the fact that a much higher percentage astronauts are left-handed than a standard distribution would predict.

    Now, as for handshakes In general, I‘d hate to imagine that we’re heading towards a world where handshakes are no longer a customary component of polite greeting. I’d like to think that the next time you and I meet, Doug, we can make eye contact, smile, and shake hands. With talk in the news recently of phone apps that broadcast your COVID-19 status by Bluetooth so that contact tracing can take place, I’m wanting to continue to live in friendly world where folks can continue to shake hands, knowing that neither one is worried about bearing a virus.


  3. Thought-provoking post, Doug. I last shook hands at a funeral which occurred right before the distancing set in. There were lots of hugs too. I’ve come to learn that when I shake hands with people, I extend my right hand (like most) but when I am expressing what I will describe as “additional emotion” or I feel particularly close to the person, I notice that I place my left hand on top of their hand…it’s more of a “sandwich-type” holding of their hand inside mine. I do not know when this began and I would not do it in formal situations (I.e meeting a new person, business context) but somehow it’s become like my signature move to portray an additional sense of connection…or so I am coming to understand. Sometimes, this additional hand prompts the other person to add in a second hand too, and then we are standing there in a sort of two-handed hold. It’s not planned but just seems to happen and I am sure I’m not alone since this response has happened in a variety of situations and seemingly without a reaction that portrays bewilderment.

    I’m aware than human contact is part of the greetings I was accustomed to in my family growing up. It’s strange, for me, to gather with loved ones and not engage in some kind of physical touch (hands, hugs, kisses on the cheeks, arm around the shoulder, etc). I cannot really imagine seeing family and friends and avoiding contact altogether but perhaps that will be needed for a time…I just hope it is not forever. I think that people will be much better about personal hygiene and when sick, they will be even more likely to say “I’m not hugging you or shaking hands because I’m sick”. When it comes to interactions with people who are not friends and family, I anticipate that handshakes may become taboo in some situations or at least the expectation of one will be. Maybe people will begin asking if they can shake your hand in advance of the grasp?

    Whatever happens, I sure hope that people continue to connect on a deeper level. One thing this whole experience of distancing has shown is that humans value and rely on connections and closeness, maybe more than we knew. We took it for granted. If physical touch is reduced, I hope it is replaced with wider smiles, sweeter tones of voice and words of affection that convey what the former embraces and handshakes were meant to acknowledge. Truly honouring and acknowledging people is potentially being restored in new ways and this is likely to continue provided we remain mindful and do not merely slip into old patterns over time. Maybe instead of the usual “how are you?” followed by the usual “I’m fine.” people will be more expressive and offer phrases that touch the heart more deeply. Maybe people will begin using the telephone (to talk) and writing letters and cards again or perhaps they will plan to connect with people more intentionally instead of saying the frequent “we should get together sometime” but with no plan and execution.

    For now, I’m signing off with a virtual high five…stay healthy and hopeful everyone! I appreciate the opportunity to read, reflect and connect online. I’m learning so much.


  4. I can’t actually remember the last time I shook hands with someone. I have done a lot of fist bumps with students the last few years. I think that is more likely to replace handshakes than elbow bumps.

    I shook hands with Bobby Kennedy once at a rally. He was running for the US Senate at the time. Other than that nothing really stands out in the handshake department.


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