Back in early March, I stood at a party—remember those?—next to a chino-ed man in R.M. Williams boots while a blue-suited English anchor on the TV screen behind me shuffled his papers and grimaced, as if to prepare his audience for the distressing news he was about to deliver. The pandemic was just making its terrible weight known across Europe. ‘When this is all over,’ the anchor said, ‘maybe no one will ever shake hands again.’ He paused to let his pronouncement sink in, before cutting to the next segment about the new trend taking the UK by storm: sourdough bread-making.
The chino-ed man gazed suspiciously at the screen. ‘Nah, no joke…how do they expect us to not shake people’s hands?’ he said, with the kind of broad accent inner-city professionals sometimes put on to ingratiate themselves to the common man. He was oblivious, as we all were, to the restrictions that would come to infringe on so much more than that in the coming weeks—but more importantly, he seemed baffled by the prospect of a life in which big, important men did not clasp each other’s sweaty palms before getting down to business.
Over the coming months, as various medical professionals came on TV and agreed that yes, it was probably best that we never shake hands again, I felt a little hum of relief. It’s not like I’d ever actively dreaded the prospect of handshaking. But it had always felt a little like playing a part.
As a junior working in a corporate law firm—an archetypal one, with dizzying office views and sacrosanct hierarchies—I was taken to one of my first meetings with external clients. The usual mental calculations ran around in my head as I entered behind my colleagues and assessed the room. The numbers were more heartening than usual; I was the only woman in the room, but one of three people of colour. Decent, I thought. The joy of not being the token. The men all shook hands with each other while I watched and waited for a hand to be proffered. None came. Instead, on my way out, one of the clients asked me, ‘What’s the best place to go for a drink around here? Where all you young girls go?’ There was a consensus and familiarity between the others which played itself out in the handshaking and which wasn’t extended to me—as a person who, for my age, my gender, my junior level or some combination of them all, wasn’t in the club.
Even when I was initiating the handshake, it seemed like I was observing something from the outside—an outdated gesture that wasn’t really for me.
As time went on, I learned certain ways of asserting myself in spaces in which I didn’t immediately feel comfortable. I began pre-empting the handshake, thrusting my hand out with gusto, rather than waiting for it to be passed over. I followed the dicta of hand shaking as per the internet: firm, brief and preferably not sandwiching any nervous sweat. But even when I was initiating the handshake, it seemed like I was observing something from the outside—an outdated gesture that wasn’t really for me. Through this mundane daily practice, inescapable connotations of masculinity, machoism and brute strength ran steadily uncommented upon.
I began shaking people’s hands like I meant it, trying to infuse my firm grip and enthusiastic pumps with all the personal characteristics that a handshake is magically supposed to reveal: trustworthiness, professionalism and a general unblemished character. A handshake, if performed with seriousness and with an unyielding grip, seemed to momentarily transcend the inherently feminine kind of weakness that they perceived in me before I wrung their hands like I was trying to break them clean off.
Jana*, a South Asian woman who also works in corporate law, tells me that she started initiating handshakes in meeting rooms when she saw her hand being passed over in favour of the next man in line. She saw it as the only way to get involved in the interaction. ‘Yeah sure, you have to work twice as hard…like, if a Mike our age walks into the room, he’s just going to get his hand shaken,’ she says. ‘It forces you to be more confident.’ While the proper performance of the handshake might allow myself and other women to temporarily ‘fit in’, like many other behaviours in professional spaces, it suits personality types who either are or can mould themselves to be assertive when the need arises.
While evidence of handshake gestures has been found dating back to the 9th century BC and beyond, it was used less as a means of greeting and leave-taking than an expression of ‘friendship, brotherhood, peace, reconciliation, accord, or mutual agreement.’ The Quakers played a large role in adapting the handshake to become an everyday act. According to historian Torbjörn Lundark, the handshake enabled Quakers to defy the norms of a society that demanded strict class distinction evidenced by bowing and ‘pompous gesticulation’, which they sought to replace with shaking hands. As an everyday greeting, handshaking only properly became commonplace in the 1800s. Now, the handshake is more commonly understood as an ‘access symbol’ according to Deborah Schriffrin, writing in 1974. The handshake, in its ability to offer something while also requesting a reciprocation, is understood as a gesture which leads to a period of increased access.
The dap, a coded gesture akin to a fist bump or handshake which can take diverse forms, also evolved as an act of resistance, an expression of resilience and a way of communicating information. In an Atlantic piece called ‘The sacred art of giving dap’, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates describes how he avoided shaking hands or giving dap every time he passed his Black colleagues because it was foreign to his white co-workers—even though it was a natural symbol of brotherhood and affinity to him and his Black co-worker.
According to LaMont Hamilton, the dap (and the Black Power handshake, which grew out of it) has a crucial role as ‘symbols of Black consciousness, identity, and cultural unity throughout Black America.’ Originating in the 1960s among African-American soldiers in the Vietnam War as a way of communicating a mutual commitment to look out for one other, the dap was perceived by white superiors as a means of communicating ‘potential Black insurrection’ and therefore, as a threat. It was outlawed but as Hamilton writes, its repression went towards cementing its importance as a gesture of solidarity among Black soldiers. This reflects Rodenburg’s notion of the handshake as an expression of solidarity—a way in which, though the gesture has transmuted in white-majority professional spaces to one of greeting, still persists in different parts of society in alignment with its original roots as a tactile recognition of brotherhood and togetherness.
Has the handshake become a language of professional and public communication so ingrained that it’s hard to, ahem, shake?
In a world where Indigenous men and men of colour are dogged by the constant spectre of attack, whether that be through media vilification, targeting by police, or in their disproportionate levels of incarceration, handshakes exist as a creative, powerfully tactile and often strategic form of communication and expression of solidarity and interpersonal connection. Tyler Parry, in an essay about the origins of handshakes and salutations used in African American communities, reflects on linguist John Baugh’s 1978 analysis of six hundred handshakes performed by Black residents of an area in Los Angeles. He determined the differences between the Black Power handshake, which was used among trusted ‘insiders’, and the ‘standard handshake’, which was used for people who didn’t fall within those realms of trust. Handshakes, in this context, become necessary modes of communication and acknowledging filial connection.
Does the handshake work to reinforce masculine ideas of what it means to be a professional person, whether in public life or not? Must women reshape ourselves to fit an archaic, patriarchal narrative around who is qualified to do ‘real’ work? Has the handshake become a language of professional and public communication so ingrained that it’s hard to, ahem, shake?
This becomes particularly relevant when women aren’t offered the opportunity to engage in handshakes at all. Tim*, a Black man who works at a Sydney media agency, says that there is a regular state of play at his workplace: walking into a meeting, men reach out to shake each others’ hands but lean in to kiss women on the cheek. Gender distinctions are thus made obtrusively clear at the outset of any professional interaction and in such a way that individuals are not afforded an opportunity to identify with a gender themselves before being immediately designated one. ‘I was kind of shocked when I realised what was happening…but it would be weird if I was the only guy in the room who went around shaking women’s hands,’ says Tim. Reluctance to break with accepted behavioural norms precludes individuals from acting against the majority, denying women the ability to enter the realm of those who are able to shake hands and therefore enter the ‘club’. Although judging a person’s character by the softness of their cheek is as arbitrary as judging them on the firmness of their grip, kissing a woman strips her of the chance to make those first impressions which are apparently reflective of ‘character’ that only a handshake allows.
The problem is not inherent to the act of handshaking, but in the systematic way it operates to exclude and disempower.
Cat*, a young white woman who works in a not-for-profit, says that whenever men around her are offered a handshake, she is usually offered one too, however, she still feels broadly alienated from the practice—even in her informal, casual workplace setting. That being said, she concedes to feeling a sense of accomplishment in handshakes on certain occasions, usually when they feel conspiratorial; a man shakes her hand at the close of an agreement or decision, as though she has been ‘let in on something private’. But if handshakes give access, then men, in this context, remain the gatekeepers.
The problem, then, is not inherent to the act of handshaking, but in the systematic way it operates to exclude and disempower. The conventional wisdom underpinning the idea that ‘an individual’s handshake reveals much about that person’s personality’ skews the odds against women, and therefore, against how the woman is perceived by others in a workplace scenario. The trust established between hand shakers isn’t offered the opportunity to blossom in the case of a woman it denies.
The pandemic has served to shine a light on many, more blatant and more devastating manipulations of Western society to suit the wealthy, white and overprivileged that continue to operate in plain sight. The renewed focus on the operations of a handshake are one of the ways in which it could serve to highlight the strange and subtle power dynamics playing out around us every day.
*Names have been changed.