The History of the Handshake (and Why It Still Matters for Deal-Making)

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

By Quinn Coleman

Trade show sales

In a digital age, why do we still have in-person conferences and trade shows? Technology allows marketing teams to digitize and automate processes, including using AI to target potential clients and automating email campaigns to create brand and product awareness. Furthermore, social media allows companies to engage in real-time with clients and followers. And yet, there’s something missing. Face-to-face communication between businesses continues to remain a vital piece in successful deal-making, and specifically the handshake. But why? What’s the story behind the handshake, a simple gesture that remains a fundamental piece in building relationships and trust between people and businesses

The history of the handshake begins, like many great things, in Ancient Greece and Rome. According to the History Channel, one of the earliest depictions of the handshake was the sealing of a deal—something we here at SummitSync are quite familiar with. In a ninth-century B.C. sculpture, Assyrian King Shalmaneser III is depicted shaking the hand of a Babylonian ruler in order to seal an alliance. It was important for the Greeks to ensure that the parties to an agreement remained true to their word, so the touching of the hand was created to signify a flesh bound agreement that marked a sacred commitment.

The handshake was also used as a safety precaution. In Ancient Rome, a man would grab the forearm of other men when greeting to ensure that they were not concealing weapons in their sleeves. This practice continued to be used in medieval Europe, in instances of sword fighting. This era solidified the practice of the hand “grab,” as a hand “shake,” done with your right hand. The up and down motion of the hand “shake,” was to dislodge of any potential weapons hidden up an adversary’s shirt sleeves. The shake was done with the right hand, as the scabbard, which held the sword, was slung across the left side and was grabbed with the right hand if there was any danger. The handshake became a symbol that demonstrated people came in peace.

We see the handshake again arise in the 17th-century, this time as a greeting, in the way that many handshakes are used today. Quakers repopularized the handshake as a greeting considered to be more “egalitarian” than a bow or a tip of the hat. In this way, the handshake transformed the greeting from something that typically displayed wealth or class distinctions. It became a symbol to prove that both parties were equal and respectful of each other. Using handshakes as a form of greeting spread across Europe, and by the 1800s, Victorian etiquette manuals included ways to properly perform a handshake—firm, but not too hard.

In modern times, research has examined the science behind the handshake, a gesture that was thought to be rooted in tradition and history. However, a 2015 study found that we often bring our right hands to our noses after we shake hands, likely as a sort of chemical exchange, similar to the way animals smell each other to sense danger.

The long history of the handshake has produced a modern gesture which can be used to tell others many different things about you—whether that comes from your “scent” or not. We often observe shakes to see if they are light, firm, or long, and whether or not eye contact is held or posture is slumped. These characteristics of the shake have come to show us different things about a person, especially in business. A firm handshake is seen as good—that you’re confident in your ability to execute the job. Too firm can imply that you are likely compensating for something, like a desirable set of skills. Looking away suggests you’re weak, and that you may not be up for the task.

Whether a first-meeting, a greeting to a friend or business partner, sealing the deal, or saying goodbye, the handshake has become apart of our everyday life and is used across the globe. We shake hands so routinely and we often never stop to think about the significance of the gesture, and how much it can do for us in life and in business. SummitSync firmly believes in the power of the handshake, and we’ve built a business around enabling people to do just that. Rather than trying to decipher tone via email, make the most out of the opportunities that allow you to establish business relationships in person.

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