How Do You Do?

A formal occasion, a meeting or even a regular greeting: handshakes are very common in today’s world, both on and off the social circuit. However, it is interesting to analyse how this custom originated and at the same time, one cannot help but reflect upon this custom that we have so completely internalized.

In fact, handshakes had started as custom to show the other party that one is unarmed. This is a peculiar historical fact that shows how the context in which this common greeting was first used has changed. Today, there are umpteen social rules associated with a handshake. Too strong a grasp reflects dominance, on the other hand, if it is light then it might show frivolity. Even as we burden this innocent practice with so many corollaries, it is important to ask whether this was such an innocent practice to start with. Ironically, the gesture that showed the parties are unarmed has today become a ritual signifying etiquette and goodwill.

In the days when this custom seems to have made its initial appearances, there was a great amount of insecurity and representatives in a formal meeting were under constant threat of attack from the enemies of the state. Here, coming too close to greet was a distinctly dangerous thing to do. But, one could not do away with a symbolic greeting which was ingrained in the concept of “civilized behaviour”. A handshake was therefore a safe option. It was not too close, relatively safe and presented an admirable model of gentleman-like conduct. It is interesting to note that given the very male origins of the handshake, even today women are not too comfortable or open about it and it still remains more of a manly custom.

Perhaps, there is a need to contextualize this ritual further. In 1978, Philip A Busterson’s Social Rituals of the British traces the beginning of the handshake to Sir Walter Raleigh who claimed to have introduced it in the British court in the 16th Century. One cannot help but wonder how this western practice has evolved into a global ritual. Obviously, imperialism and spread of Western modes of behaviour appears to be the most obvious explanation. Yet, there are many Western notions that people question, if not resist. Why then has the handshake been accepted by the world so whole-heartedly? Perhaps because this custom, whatever its origins, is the ultimate signal of formal, polite behaviour. Psychologically too, handshakes give one a feeling of distance. At the same time, the body contact enables a feeling of equality and mutual willingness to work together. No wonder, then it is so popular in the global arena today.

It makes for interesting speculation to wonder how and when the customs that we follow unquestioningly, actually started. It also gives us an overview about how our history culture and custom are inextricably linked so that we reiterate one in following the other, often innocent of our own role in keeping traditions alive.

Ipshita Ghosh

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