At a recent open-air meeting of people of various walks of life, I got into conversation with a police inspector. At the end of our chat about things in general and police life in particular, he offered his right hand, which I took and we shook hands. Nothing wrong with that. Nothing unusual, you may say. But it started me thinking about this custom of shaking hands.
My very immediate thought was of my first experience of meeting and merging with German society, some 50 years ago. I couldn’t believe my own eyes. Everybody shook hands with everybody – not just once, but repeatedly. And what was wrong with that, you might say. Nothing, I suppose. But I was a Brit, and I was like a fish out of water. And why?, you may ask.
Well, 50 years ago, hand shaking was rather a rare activity in the UK. Shaking hands was mostly reserved for special occasions or circumstances. To shake hands with someone of your frequent acquaintance was simply unknown. Maybe you can imagine how out of place I felt, and how mildly surprised some Germans were when my right hand didn’t appear outstretched as spontaneously as their own hand.
So what is this hand shaking all about? Who began it? And why?
Several theories abound, but the true origins seem to be lost in antiquity. A plausible theory suggests that while two people’s hands are clasped together, there is no opportunity of holding weapons in them, which is true of the military salute. Another theory maybe that it took the place of a signature to some treaty or agreement, back in days when few, if any people knew how to write, or even had the necessary materials for writing.
Shaking hands to seal a business deal is still within living memory, in the stock exchanges and commodities markets, for example. However, that has now changed. Today, a signature usually with another signature as witness is normal. ‘A gentleman’s word is his bond’, is a thing of the past. Although, farmers in certain societies still depend on it.
It is still considered as impolite to shake hands while wearing gloves. That is probably because the wearing of gloves would make hand contact imperfect; a sort of insulation between two people’s skin contact. I know of one exception, however.
Queen Elizabeth always wears gloves when meeting people.
Some 3 or 4 years ago I was invited, with my wife, to a Buckingham Palace garden party, to celebrate an anniversary. I happened to be one of several people who were selected to be presented to the Queen. The many guests formed a lane, through which she would make her way. I was at the end of a curve in the lane and was unable to see her progress. Suddenly, this little lady stood in front of me with an exquisite smile. She offered her white-gloved hand for me to take. Unfortunately, the officer who was to introduce me was absent at that moment. The Queen didn’t know why I was selected to meet her, so in a typical British way she spoke of the weather (it was 33C that day) – I answered in kind since it is not considered correct to speak to the monarch, unless first spoken to by her. Then I introduced my wife, who with her German background, was able to make the perfect curtsy, while taking the Queen’s hand.
I thought at the time, how unpleasant it would have been for the Queen if she hadn’t been wearing gloves – all those sweaty hands – all those bacteria, being passed on to her.
So, do I find a difference, now that I am once again resident in the UK? Indeed I do. Modern Brits shake hands with each other at every imaginable occasion. Just imagine how I feel now: shaking every ones hand, exchanging bacteria! Even cheek kissing the ladies is a quite normal custom. This was almost unknown in my pre-Germany days. Sometimes I feel off-balance at these exchanges just like when I first entered German society Ah well! How life changes!
Custom: the usual way of behaving in a certain situation.
A fish out of water: someone in a situation where they are an outsider.
Acquaintance: someone you know quite well but is not a friend.
Abound: to exist in great numbers.
Treaty: a contract usually between two or more nations.
Bond: in this context a binding agreement.
Lane: in this context two rows of people facing each other with space for others to walk between the two rows.
In kind: in the same way.
Curtsy: a movement made by ladies when meeting royalty – bending the knees and lowering the body, usually while shaking hands.