Don't Shake On It

Don't Shake On It

By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu

Handshake Illustration
SourceGary Waters/Getty


Because your next handshake could kill you. 

By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu

After five rounds of mind-numbing negotiating, the nitty-gritty is set and the paperwork is squared away. That big-deal deal is now a real deal. But wait, let’s not shake on it. Instead, let’s bow down and do the wai.

For the uninitiated, the wai  is the traditional bow greeting in Thailand: Press your palms together in prayerlike fashion and bow your head slightly. The higher your hands, the more respect you show. There are analogs throughout Asia, from the Indian namaste to the Cambodian sampeah and Laotian nop; this graceful bowing is used for everything from saying howdy to customers to apologizing profusely to bidding farewell to business partners. The gesture is all feely without the touchy — and one that the Western world ought to adopt.

Yes, the Western custom of the handshake is spreading its grip around the world. But it’s not as warm a gesture as it sometimes seems. The original handshake arose as an easy weapons check via the ancient Romans, who, upon first encounter, latched onto each other’s arms to feel for any weapons hidden up the sleeves. It had little to do with demonstrating “character, motivation, confidence [or] assertiveness,” says Sharon Schweitzer, a cross-cultural consultant and etiquette expert based in Texas. 

Nowadays, etiquette workshops and online body-language tutorials regularly churn out advice on how to deliver the perfect handshake. The wrong kind of grip could leave a bad impression for decades to come, but a firm one, they say, could land you a coveted job or wow that gorgeous stranger. And oh, the significance we attribute to the handshake! In June, China’s President Xi Jinping shook the hand of Hong Kong Financial Secretary John Tsang at the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank meeting in Beijing. Rumors quickly surfaced that this “Shake-gate” was Xi’s nod of approval for Tsang to be the next chief executive of the $100 billion enterprise. All because of a glorified palm rub?


Beyond the power politics, handshakes are also natural vehicles for spreading infectious diseases. They’re ticking germ bombs — with the CDC estimating that nearly 80 percent of infections are transmitted by hands, which teem with millions of bacteria and viruses. This led Dr. Tom McClellan of West Virginia University to laud a safer salutation — the fist bump — while other health officials promoted the elbow bump during Haiti’s cholera outbreak, Mexico’s swine flu scare and the recent Ebola epidemic. But fist bumps are too bro-ey and elbow bumps are just awkward. Imagine knocking elbows with your future boss at a high-stakes job interview. (McClellan did not respond to requests for comment.) 

The European and Latin American kisses on the cheeks are even likelier to pass on the flu. But the ick factor for the Asian bow? Zero. It’s an all-in-one, touch-free alternative rooted in humility rather than power trips. Still, Schweitzer, the etiquette guru, worries about cultural appropriation. Each culture’s greetings are “honored,” and poaching another’s might be “disrespectful to the heritage and customs of the nation’s elders,” she explains.

Yet as with food and music, culture is meant to be shared. So why not leave the hearty handshake behind in favor of a more humble, sanitary bow? As for Shake-gate, Tsang didn’t get the gig. But at least that handshake didn’t give him the plague.