The handshake across cultures

Dear All,
This post discusses one of the most common nonverbal communication means, the handshake.  According to the Cambridge Dictionary online, handshake [ˈhændˌʃeɪk] is defined as

a greeting or expression of agreement in which two people who are facing each other take hold of each other’s right hands and move them up and down” (CDO, 2014).

In fact, the definition above is somewhat outdated since a handshake in the modern world has gone far beyond the strict norms prescribing “facing each other”, “right hands” and “mov[ing] them up and down”. For example, the Scout handshake involves using the hand which is nearest to the heart (i.e. the left hand) as a sign of friendship. Other modern “handshakes” may range from a simple “high five” to a complex greeting which includes a combination of a type of a handshake and a hug.

The exact history of a handshake is unknown. One of the first documented handshakes goes back to the XIX c. BC. Probably, the origin of a handshake is linked to the tradition of showing empty hands, without arms, and in this way confirming a friendly attitude towards the other person. In the past, it was much more common to carry weapon than it is nowadays. Therefore, the display of empty hands was an important sign of good intentions. The fact that it used to be (and still is in some cultures) much more common to shake hands for two men than two women may support this theory of the origin of a handshake since a weapon was typically carried by men.

In different cultures across the world, there are different traditions associated with a handshake (Kirsch, 2002). I would like to discuss some of these traditions below:

In Canada, a handshake is optional in an informal or semi-formal setting. However, if a hand is offered, a handshake is obligatory. Notably, it is not uncommon for men to shake hands with ladies including the cases in which the two people have a considerable difference in age.

In Ukraine, a handshake is mandatory between men starting from about age 7. A person must shake hands with every man in that place. For example, it is necessary to shake hands with each classmate at school because it is considered to be impolite and rude not to shake hands with somebody. Importantly, hands must be shaking with no gloves. Alternatively, men (or one of them) can leave their gloves on, but then hands are not shaken, but only fists are bumped as a greeting. Women shake hands only in a formal setting in Ukraine.

Belgians are said to shake hands more often than any other European nation.

A French handshake is crisp and brief.

An Arab handshake may be slow and long.

In South Africa a strong handshake is a norm and is expected.

In Saudi Arabia and Thailand shaking hands with women may be considered as bad manners. A nod is acceptable where a handshake is impossible.

In South America an informal greeting may involve a kiss.

In Japan, a bow is expected as a form of greeting. The lower is a bow, the more respect and humility is communicated. In most informal or semi-formal situations a 15-degree bow is acceptable. More formal greeting involves a 30-degree bow with the hands together and the palms on the knees.

An energetic handshake in China expresses that the person is sincerely glad to see the other person.

As can be seen from the examples, the definition of the handshake by the Cambridge Dictionary is somewhat limiting since it does not necessarily include modern forms of handshake and may be missing some intercultural peculiarities. Therefore, it may be more cautious to define the handshake as

a form of greeting which usually includes a hand contact between two people and which is used to express respect and/or agreement“.

This definition may be less specific than the one above, but at the same time it is more accurate since it does not exclude modern forms of shaking hands as a kind of greeting or agreement.

Below is a short video. It shows in a funny way some common mistakes/issues in a classical handshake:

Video credit: BusinessGovAu, “The Top 10 Bad Business Handshakes” June 4, 2013, via YouTube.

This post has briefly discussed the nature of the handshake and suggested a definition of the handshake which allows to include different modern forms of the handshake. This post has also information about certain traditions/practices associated with the handshake in across cultures. If you would like to add any relevant information, you can do so by posting a comment to this post.

Cambridge Dictionaries Online (CDO) (2014). Retrieved August 9, 2014 from,
Kirsch, V. (2002, January). Shaking hands around the world. Presentation posted on the official Wisc-Online website (




  1. Handshakes are quite different across cultures. Good to know information…

    • Hi Shaun,
      Indeed, please feel free to add your perspective!

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