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  • Writer's pictureRajaa Aquil

When a handshake or lack off, ends in tears!

Updated: Feb 4, 2019

What is a handshake?

Is it this one ?

Or is it one of these?

Is it universal or culturally specific?

Are there different types of a handshake?

Do handshakes give different messages?

Are handshakes the only way of greeting?

These are some of the questions that triggered me to do research on handshake and write about the differences in handshake between the Arab world and the West, particularly between Arab men and women. Researchers in cultural differences between the Arab world and the West advice travelers and business people to be aware that in some Arab countries it is a cultural taboo to shake hands between men and women. They add that when a Western man is introduced to an Arab woman, he should wait for the woman to extend her hand, as it is the woman's choice whether to shake hands or not. Being a native of the Arab society I agree with what the researchers have advised and in fact the story you will read below illustrates this point. However, I would like to go deeper than just listing what to do and what not to do, and uncover some of the hidden meanings.

We all as a human species of different nations, ethnicity, color and race use our hands while communicating. Hands are used to signify happiness, sadness, queries and more. So, a handshake which is a form of greeting between us, must not only be universal, but also the default. But is it really so? And does a lack of handshake mean rudeness on the part of the person who denies the handshake?

Historically Romans shook hands differently. They shook hands as in arm wrestling. It was not necessarily for the purpose of greeting, but to gauge who was stronger and could be chosen as a fighter. In fact, it was the Romans’ custom when shaking hands to grab hold of the other person’s wrist to check that the other person was not hiding a dagger in his sleeve. However, now a handshake symbolizes willingness to accept and interact with others, of equality, and in general of warmth and solidarity.

As we all know there are different types of handshakes, the firm, the dominant, and the one with both hands. The angle, position and the pressure of a handshake signifies a lot. I will not delve into detail about each type of handshake. But every unique handshake gives a different message. For example, it's customary to think of the firm handshake’s message as that of trust, equality and good understanding. It is sometimes called the business handshake. The dominant especially if accompanied with pressure, is said to represent aggression and dominance, while the one with both hands is that of kindness, closeness and sincere understanding.

Handshake is important in personal life as well as in business. In the Middle East, a written contract is not binding until the two parties have shaken hands. Even in our day and age of teleconferencing, this gets some business men to travel miles so that they can meet future business partners in person and shake their hands. Note that in some parts of the Arab world, it is the custom that men shake hands with men and women shake hands with women. In these countries shaking hands between men and women is a taboo among pious Muslims. Of course, this cannot be generalized to the whole Arab world. Because it differs from one person to another, and also differs from one Arab country to another. However, when visiting new countries, it is always valuable to learn about how people greet each other so that you don’t break any cultural taboos. Talking about the Middle East, brings me to the story I would like to share with you.

A handshake or lack of! A non-shaky encounter ends in tears!

A young girl in her early twenties who happens to be the apple of her father’s eye, is eagerly waiting by the door to greet an important visitor. The young lady is residing with her father during his tenure as an ambassador of an Arab country that happens to follow a very strict Islamic tradition. The father is an ambassador in a foreign Catholic country. She is dressed not only with the most elegant clothes but also with the most pleasant smile on her face. This is the dignitary’s first visit to the foreign country and the ambassador is throwing a party in his honor.

The residence is blanketed with vibrant colors emitting from the flowers and dresses worn by the lady guests. The purr and roar of the crowd’s talking, and laughing is filling all around. Here is our young lady impatiently waiting for the dignitary to arrive at the foyer of the residence. The dignitary’s car approaches. The door of the residence opens and here he enters. The ambassador and his staff are standing in line to greet the visitor, and so is the young girl’s older brother. She is standing by her brother smiling and waiting for her turn to shake hands with the visitor. She counts the people who are a head of her to greet the visitor: one, two, three, four, five “Oh my turn is approaching she murmurs”. She is the seventh in line after her brother. In fact, she is the last in line. Oh “I am so excited! I will shake hands with the most important man in the field of education in my country” she whispers to herself. Now it is her turn, the dignitary approaches her and smiles to her. She extends her hand. Nothing happens. Her hand is hanging in the air. She extends it farther towards the visitor. But still nothing happens. The visitor doesn’t grab her hand to shake it. For the third time she repeats the action of extending her hand. Yet her hand is still hanging in the air. She looks at her father with big inquisitive tear-welled eyes. Her eyes express “what happened”? Why? What’s going on?”

During this inquisitive instance between the girl and her father, the dignitary passes her without shaking her hands. But the girl’s hand is still hanging in the air. She feels so embarrassed. She rushes to her room and cries. Her father follows her and enters her room to hug her. She tells him with crying voice, “why didn’t the visitor shake my hand?” “He is very rude, isn’t he father?”

The young girl interprets the visitor's denial to shake hands with her as a sign of him ignoring and not identifying her as a distinct being worthy of recognition.

The father smiles and answers in the negative that the visitor neither is rude, nor ignores her.

He continues to explain that the visitor is from a very strict Islamic background. It's their tradition to decline a handshake with a woman that is outside the circle of their family. They consider a handshake a bodily contact that their strict tradition forbids between men and women who happen to be strangers and not related by family or marriage.

Then the father illustrates more, “haven't you seen him my dear putting his hand over his heart?” The daughter affirms “yes father, I have seen his hand on his heart.” The father then says, “then he has greeted you in the most proper way according to his culture”. But the daughter then asks her father, “but how will I know if a certain person is from a certain creed or culture that forbids handshake with women, so as not to extend my hand in vain and feel so embarrassed again?” Her father replies with a grin on his face “have you seen the cover that is on his head, it does not have the black headband customary with our national dress.” The daughter nods “oh yes! he isn’t wearing one”. “Yes, my dear.” the father concurs, and adds “this is a sign."

Since then the young girl learned to be observant of the minutest details of different cultures, different beliefs, and different code of dress and conduct. She learned never to label any of them as good or bad, but instead accept all as they are. Although human behavior is the same everywhere, the meaning of certain actions differs from one culture to another. Judging these actions according to our norms will not help, we need to go deep in the foreign culture to understand the history, context and factors that lead to different manifestations and behavior.

According to Gumperz (1982), our ability to communicate with others depends on ‘shared interpretive conventions’ (p. 3). Non-verbal cues, an aspect of human communication that is open

to a range of meaning based on a shared interpretive conventions of a given speech community. Therefore, how people greet each other can differ from one country to another. For example, in Japan, people often bow to each other, and in Malaysia they put their hands on their hearts, and in France young people blow kisses in the air to each other. There are even more uncommon ways of greeting. For example, it is said that in the Tibet people stick their tongue out, and in Qatar men of certain tribes bump their noses, whereas in New Zealand they rub their faces, but in Zimbabwe and Mozambique they clap their hands.


Gumperz, J. 1982. Discourse Strategies. Cambridge: CUP

Wezowski, K. & Wezowski, P. 2018. Without saying a word: Master the science of body language and maximize your success. Harper Collins Publishing.

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