Western culture: Why we shake hands

www.history.com King Shalmaneser III of Assyria meeting a Babylonian, detail from Shalmaneser III’s throne, relief

The handshake is the most common physical way to greet people around the world. We do it so often that many of us have never thought about why we do it and where the tradition in our Western culture came from.

That handshake originated as a symbol of peace as it showed both people that neither of them was carrying a weapon. Originally, the handshake was more like an arm grab as it involved grabbing each other’s forearms to check that the other person didn’t have a knife hidden up their sleeve. Some people believe that the handshake started in medieval Europe when knights would shake the hands of others in order to try to shake loose any hidden weapons. This may be why many of us instinctively feel suspicious of someone who does not want to shake our hand. We immediately wonder what they are hiding.


The handshake is not a quaint little custom as some would have us believe. It is a historical part of our Western culture and it has been around as a literal way to extend the hand of friendship since the 5th century BC in Greece.

The base of a column at the Acropolis Museum in Athens shows Hera shaking hands with Athena. This is significant as by shaking hands, rather than bowing or curtseying, both of them recognised the other as equals and showed that they trusted each other enough to not bring weapons.

Handshakes between men and their wives are depicted in many 17th-century marriage portraits. The handshake was part of the wedding ceremony itself and the gesture sealed their sacred and legal commitment.

4th century BC: Depicts Thraseas and his wife Euandria handshaking

The right hand is generally considered proper etiquette because way back then that was the sword hand.

Archaeological ruins and ancient texts show that handshaking – also known as dexiosis – was practiced in ancient Greece as far back as the 5th century BC; a depiction of two soldiers shaking hands can be found on part of a 5th-century BC funerary stele on display in the Pergamon Museum[…]

The handshake is commonly done upon meeting, greeting, parting, offering congratulations, expressing gratitude, or completing an agreement. In sports or other competitive activities, it is also done as a sign of good sportsmanship. Its purpose is to convey trust, respect, balance, and equality. If it is done to form an agreement, the agreement is not official until the hands are parted



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