The Unspoken Reasons Why We Shake Hands

Behind every behavior there are four potential explanations:


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

    ​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

    Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

    Big Think Edge
    • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
    • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
    • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
    Keep reading Show less

    Why are so many objects in space shaped like discs?

    It's one of the most consistent patterns in the unviverse. What causes it?

    Videos
    • Spinning discs are everywhere – just look at our solar system, the rings of Saturn, and all the spiral galaxies in the universe.
    • Spinning discs are the result of two things: The force of gravity and a phenomenon in physics called the conservation of angular momentum.
    • Gravity brings matter together; the closer the matter gets, the more it accelerates – much like an ice skater who spins faster and faster the closer their arms get to their body. Then, this spinning cloud collapses due to up and down and diagonal collisions that cancel each other out until the only motion they have in common is the spin – and voila: A flat disc.

    This is the best (and simplest) world map of religions

    Both panoramic and detailed, this infographic manages to show both the size and distribution of world religions.

    (c) CLO / Carrie Osgood
    Strange Maps
    • At a glance, this map shows both the size and distribution of world religions.
    • See how religions mix at both national and regional level.
    • There's one country in the Americas without a Christian majority – which?
    Keep reading Show less
    Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
    Mind & Brain

    Do human beings have a magnetic sense? Biologists know other animals do. They think it helps creatures including bees, turtles and birds navigate through the world.

    Keep reading Show less