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Vladimir & Barack do the shake

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Inspired by the attention given to Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin's shaking of hands on American news networks our Sunday Comics author digs into the cultural archaeology of the handshake

Jim Gabour
8 September 2013

The dramatically-anticipated scene was on every news network and in multiple stills on every site and print paper:  one man shakes hands with another.  It only took fifteen seconds, and even that was considered overly long.

The Associated Press reported:  “President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin shook hands, smiled and made small talk about the scenery on Thursday… Parsing the body language between Obama and Putin has become something of a geopolitical parlor game every time the two leaders meet... The two leaders, both smiling, greeted each other with a handshake.”

The two world leaders pressed flesh, in a manly sort of way, and then just as quickly moved apart, turned back to the waiting cameras and ignored each other.  It was a performance of Beckett’s opus “Waiting for Godot” in a single gesture.

Obama had his actively-pursued agenda and Vladimir “Snake Eyes” Putin had his.  Their hands said everything.

Afterwards, in an attempt to mollify critics and show that he is indeed not the hard-hearted misanthrope he is vaunted to be, he attempted to assert that he plays nice with other people:   “We have absolutely normal relations,” Putin said of Russia’s government and its gay community. “I don’t see anything out of the ordinary here.” As evidence, he pointed out that Russians are really into Tchaikovsky, though he was gay. “Truth be told, we don’t love him because of that, but he was a great musician and we all love his music,” said the president.

Yes, Vladimir, but would you shake hands with him?

Still, on the incident of contact, Putin continued:  “President Obama hasn’t been elected by the American people in order to be pleasant to Russia,” he said. “And your humble servant hasn’t been elected by the people of Russia to be pleasant to someone either.”

* * *

Speculation has it that the handshake originated in the 5th century BC Greece as a gesture of peace.  As in:  “See, Achilles?  I don’t have a sword in this hand.”

That is probably why it is customary to this day that the shaking is preferred to be done with a bare appendage.  You never can tell what may be under that glove.

The gesture holds many variations.  Firm handshakes seem to be preferred In Scandinavian and other Western European countries, and in the Americas.

In Turkey and the Arabic-speaking Middle East, a firm grip is an insult.  

Whereas in the Far East, in societies like those of Japan and China, a weak grip is de rigueur, though the Chinese often hold onto each other’s hands for an extended period after the initial shake.  Possibly this action is part of the pervasive Oriental notion of “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” mentality.  South Koreans also favor the light action, and further consider using the free hand to touch the other person’s arm or hand to be rude.

They would not appreciate off-putting American politicians who use just such a double-handed grip to convey their down-home appeal, honesty, and approachability.   Touching other people, however, does not seem to be considered appealing by Tea Party sorts.  Like Mr Putin, they might, for instance, fear “catching a case of queer” by physical contact with a gay constituent.

This is no recent phenomenon.  Wikipedia reminds us:  “In a July 1977 publicity stunt a US mayor shook more than 11,000 hands in a single day, breaking the record previously held by President Theodore Roosevelt, who had set the record with 8,510 handshakes at a White House reception on 1 January 1907.”

Somebody counted all those handshakes in 1907.  No wonder we had a world war seven years later.

It supposedly still matters to people what is done with hands pressed together.  On Friday 14 January 2011 the new record for length of handshake was set at 33 hours and 3 minutes.

In 2013, apps, programs and sites and apps are all given the name handshake to imply a variety of stages of implied intimacy: handshake app and handshake software to name but two.

I became so intrigued by the Obama/Putin encounter, that I investigated what makes handshakes work, and I have discovered a trove of knowledge and advice on what makes handshakes work, both in etiquette and as a matter of building one’s career.  I must share a few of these, most very specific in modes of action:

How to Have an Effective Handshake

The ABCs of Handshake Etiquette

Business Etiquette: the Handshake

Six Tips for a Perfect Handshake

A video of 'Handshake Etiquette Tips' by an etiquette expert and industry leader

Then of course there is a site devoted to The Nine types of Crappy Handshakes.

Women in many cultures, like Russia, do not normally exchange handshakes with men.  Men generally prefer to kiss the lady’s hands.  Romantic, but none too hygienic, Vladimir.

Women in general have entirely different rules about how manual encounters should be conducted.  Again, I know I got carried away, but I have to share the results of my cultural archeology:

Business Etiquette: 10 Tips on How to Shake Hands with Confidence

Handshake Etiquette Especially with Women

7 Tips on Proper Handshake Etiquette

A Guide to Proper Handshake Etiquette

Then, amongst the hip, the urban, the young, there is an entirely different world of hand to hand rituals.  I have often been completely stumped when one of my students, by way of offering friendship with an aging un-hipster, initiates this ritual.  There are multiple moves, dance steps and finger articulation involved.  Check these out.

This one is just hands, very complex, accompanied by hip music samples.

This one is quite long and elaborate, two young “brothers” meeting on the street.

A middle-aged Anglo and an African-American of the same age do a shake on the New York subway.

Two girls do their own thing.

The Ultimate Sports Handshakes.

A quite detailed explanation, with diagrams of the “Coolest Handshakes in Movies and TV”.

And of course, given this ritual’s reputed sources in African-American urban communities, a couple of white UK hipsters demonstrate how to do the deed: “Step 1: You will need a homeboy to practice with.”

There are even sites dedicated to describing the act.  For instance, the:

Thesaurus for Cool Guy Handshake

Then there is this entry in the Online Slang Dictionary

Another gesture that is said to be the source of this expanded handshake is the “fist bump”, also called “fist pound”, “bro fist”, “spudding”, “fo’ knucks”, “Bust”, “pound dogg”, “props”, or “respect knuckles”.

The fist bump symbol is reportedly written in electronic text by using the Japanese katakana alphabet YO, the equals sign and the English capital "E":  =ƎE=.  And in that coincidence of word and culture, one must wonder at the possible origins of the standard hiphop greeting:  “Yo, bro!”

The “fist bump” or “pound” came about as far back as the late 1800s and early 1900s as a  boxer’s handshake at the start of the match when hands are already gloved.  But there is a possibility that the move evolved in humanity from our ancestors.  Fist bumping is recognized as natural behavior observed in primates, according to The Egalitarians – Human and Chimpanzee: An Anthropological View of Social Organization, a book published by Margaret Power in 1991.

In light of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, the dean of medicine at the University of Calgary, Tomas Feasby, suggested that the fist bump may be a "nice replacement of the handshake" in an effort to prevent transmission of the virus.

But back to our two statesmen.   Maybe Dean Feasby’s statement was on Barrack Obama’s mind when he and his wife Michelle fist-bumped during a televised presidential campaign speech in St. Paul, Minnesota.  He continued to use the gesture in other appearances, even with his Vice-President, at one point earning the title “Fist Bumper in Chief” in the press.  Mr Obama never did get the flu.

Maybe he should have tried the same approach with Mr Putin.

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