There are several theories of when the first handshake took place...
One of the more popular beliefs is the one involving medieval strangers shaking hands to ensure no weapons would be drawn. More recently, historians note that it was Thomas Jefferson who ended the practice of bowing to guests in the White House, preferring a handshake instead to separate any notions of monarchy from the American presidency.
While Jefferson's intent was certainly admirable, many presidents since have regretted this change in etiquette, including President Hoover, who was reportedly never really good at handshaking. After shaking hands with thousands of people at the annual White House reception, his arm was so fatigued he couldn't write for days.
On same the subject, biographer Edmund Morris wrote that at the White House on New Year's Day, 1907, Theodore Roosevelt set a world record for shaking hands - 8,150 of them, including those of "every aide, usher and policeman in sight." Afterwards, Morris relates that Teddy went upstairs and privately and disgustedly, scrubbed himself clean.
Look at another venue - the cattle market. When negotiating a deal, cattle farmers will slap hands - one will name a price and slap the other's hand. If the other one does not like the price, he will slap the other's hand and name his price. This will go on until one shakes the other's hand instead of slapping it, thus concluding the deal.
The handshake has an undeniably important social and political role, particularly in the United States. It serves to equalize and is a symbol of solidarity. Secret orders, fraternities, and sororities and even religions have long use handshake rituals to recognize members, exclude outsiders, and even to supposedly reveal the identity of demons and angels.
Even 'The Donald' (Trump) has made himself pretty clear on the subject - "I think the handshake is barbaric… shaking hands, you catch the flu, you catch this, you catch all sorts of things." Good thing he wasn't doing business in our not too distant past when the handshake was a binding contract that pledged wealth and honor. Back then, all a person needed to borrow or lend money was his word and a handshake.
Globally speaking, shaking hands, in one form or another, is an accepted form of greeting, friendship, or initiation of a business transaction almost everywhere. Countries who have kept other forms of greeting include:
China: The greeting is usually just a slight nod and bow. Sometimes people will applaud; this should be responded with applause.
Thailand: The traditional greeting is to place hands in a prayer position with your head slightly bowed; this is called the Wai. The higher your hands, the more respect shown.
Poland: Men may greet women by kissing their hands; women greet other women with a slight embrace and kiss on the cheek.
Columbia: Women hold forearms instead of shaking hands.
So what else is in a handshake?
If someone does not wash their hands properly after toileting, or if they sneeze or cough into their hand and then touches a door handle or phone, when you touch the same object, or shake their hand, and then touch your face or nose or eat without washing your hands first, you can 'catch' their germs.
Some microorganisms are spread through indirect contact with respiratory secretions, including influenza, Streptococcus and the common cold. Because these diseases may be spread indirectly by hands contaminated by respiratory discharges (the stuff that comes out of their mouth and/or nose) of infected people, the spread of illness may be avoided by washing hands after coughing or sneezing and after shaking hands with an individual who has been coughing and sneezing.
Some diseases spread through fecal-oral transmission include E.coli, salmonellosis, shigellosis, hepatitis A, giardiasis, enterovirus, amebiasis, and campylobacteriosis. This means if you or someone else doesn't wash their hands properly after toileting, you can 'catch' a disease from handling ready-to-eat food or putting your fingers in your mouth (see our 'icky' list below).
Staphylococcal organisms and other diseases may also be spread when hands are contaminated with saliva or other moist body substances. These germs may be transmitted from person to person or indirectly by contamination of food or inanimate objects such as doorknobs, telephones, and money.
All of this means that when you shake someone's hand or if you have handled something that has been contaminated by someone else's hand(s) - those disease causing organisms will likely now be on your hands.
But, since refusing to shake someone's hand could quickly turn the best of situations uneasy and awkward or could be interpreted as hostile or rude, how do you avoid transmitting disease or becoming a victim from disease and illness transmitted from the handshake?
- Washing your hands properly is the best and easiest method to avoid disease and illness before you shake hands and after shaking hands with someone else (see our handwashing page)
- Always wash your hands before handling ready-to-eat food.
- Cover your cough - cough into a tissue or into your arm, not into your hand.
- Keep your hands away from your eyes, nose, or mouth - particularly if they're unwashed. If you must touch your face or eat, use a sanitizing towlette or gel if handwashing facilities are not immediately available, remembering that even after using these products, washing your hands properly as soon as possible will ensure any remaining germs are washed down the drain and not left on your hands
- If you are sick, try to avoid handshaking - holding up your hand (as if ready to wave) and telling the person you are sick or recovering from illness should always be met with gratitude that you're concerned about their health
- Even if you're not sick, a wave or other friendly non-hand contact gestures (patting lightly on the arm or shoulder) can be used in almost any situation when you're not sure about the health of individuals you may meet
There is no guarantee that you will not catch a cold, or worse, the flu or other serious illnesses, however, maintaining your health, washing your hands properly, receiving vaccinations, and becoming aware of how you can protect yourself from unnecessary exposure to disease and illness are the best and easiest ways to guard against infectious diseases during those long winter months.
REALLY ICKY (and unhealthy) THINGS PEOPLE DO
The list below is just some of the yucky things people in general do:
- Not washing hands after toileting or not washing hands properly after toileting (moisten and dash method)
- Licking fingers when handling money (do you know what's on that money??)
- People who lick their fingers while preparing food
- People licking their fingers while going through their (or your) papers
- Nose trolling, tunneling, caving, picking, etc.
- Coming to work sick and walking around sneezing and coughing