Behind every behavior there are four potential explanations:

  1. It’s been done to solve a tangible and practical problem.
  2. It’s a habit (and thus an automatic response to a cue).
  3. It’s been done for no particular reason — it’s random (or a compulsion).
  4. It’s done for social purposes.

Let’s look at #4 as it relates to something we do unconsciously every day: shaking hands. An alien observer watching two individuals reach out and clasp each other’s hands could be excused for coming up with a practical explanation for why it’s done (explanation 1). They could say that the individuals are grabbing each other’s hands to stabilize themselves, since slowing down and standing on two small limbs is tricky. They could also hypothesize that some chemical or energy is passing through the clasped appendages, allowing these human creatures to collect needed resources. Or they could think that the up and down movement of the limbs is a form of exercise that these humanoid creatures are engaging in. Unfortunately, the aliens, no matter how smart they may be, would in this case be wrong. We all know that handshakes are done as a social greeting, so that each of the parties can signal to each other that they understand the social customs of the environment. Perhaps there are other social purposes as well, such as increasing the comfort between the two shakers, but the primary aim of such acts seems to be social signaling.

What are you signaling when you properly shake someone’s hand? You are first of all signaling that you are part of the same culture. The handshake customs in different cultures vary quite a bit (weak vs. firm grip, and so on), and so by adapting your response to the individual at hand, you are signaling your understanding of, if not membership of, a shared culture. You are also signaling that you are intelligent, since you have successfully picked up and learned these social cues from your observations and experience. Those that don’t return our dangling hands, or return them improperly, are seen as odd or rude. Odd individuals are either those that are so nerdy and intelligent that they’re oblivious to worldly matters, like hand squeezing, or those that are so dull that they just don’t “get it.” Rude individuals are either those that understand the customs, but decide they are above them, or those that don’t understand the customs and don’t really seem to be interested in learning them. As you can see, an improper handshake signals either a lack of empathy or intelligence, two traits that are incredibly important for business and personal dealings.

You want to do business with sharpest people possible, and you want to make sure your clique is filled with lovely and caring people. That’s why seemingly odd or superfluous behaviors are anything but superfluous. They help us determine, in a very short period of time, the characteristics of the people we’re dealing with. They’re personality and IQ tests taken in the real world, away from the stuffy land of Scantraons and eraser dust.  

Image: Grey Geezer