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What’s in a handshake: Symbol of friendship and loyalty?

Monday 20 February 2023 | Written by Ruta Tangiiau Mave | Published in Opinion


What’s in a handshake: Symbol of friendship and loyalty?
Pacific Island Forum Secretary General Henry Puna, from left, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Republic of the Marshall Islands Kitlang Kabua, Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown and Japan Prime Minister Fumio Kishida shake hands before participating in a high-level meeting in Japan in February. PIF/23020722

The modern handshake is believed to be at least 3000 years old. Although its existence has been around for a millennium it has existed in many forms, writes Ruta Mave.

The most popular theory of how it began was as a gesture of peaceful intentions. By extending their empty right hands strangers could show that they were not holding weapons and bore no ill will toward the other one. Some say shaking the hands up and down was to dislodge any knives or daggers hidden up the sleeve. Others say the handshake was a symbol of good faith when making an oath or promise. It meant people showed their word was a sacred bond.

An agreement can be expressed quickly and clearly in words but it is only made effective by a ritual gesture – open weaponless hands stretched out to grasp another in a mutual handshake.

In ancient Rome it was often used as a symbol of friendship and loyalty. This is why photos of opposing countrymen say Russia and United States shaking hands is a vital show of trust and faith.

Recent use as an everyday greeting is a recent phenomenon, some say it began as a more egalitarian alternative to bowing or tipping a hat. By the 1800’s etiquette manuals often included guidelines for the proper handshaking technique. 

The Victorian shake was supposed to be firm not overly strong. In 1877 a gentleman who rudely presses the hand offered him in salutation, or too violently shakes it, ought never to have an opportunity to repeat his offense. 

Famous pivotal handshakes include Palm Sunday 1865 between General Ulysses S Grant and General Robert E Lee in the parlor of Wilmer McLeans farmhouse Virginia. It was the only civil thing to occur during the terrible war between the Union and the Confederacy when Lee surrendered and ended the American Civil War.

March 26, 1979 – A war lasting over 30 years came to an end with the treaty signing and a symbolic handshake between Egypt President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin on the south lawn of the White House with Jimmy Carter. Egypt was the first Arab state to officially recognise Israel. Both Sadat and Begin shared the 1978 Nobel Peace prize because of it. 

Last week at the Pacific Island Forum our illustrious leader Mark Brown shakes hands with Japan Prime Minister Fumio Kishida where Brown spoke about his concerns on their plans to dump nuclear discharge into the Ocean. It is interesting to note that Brown has no worries about hypocrisy when he continues to allow the collection of sludge from the chlorination of our water at the intake sites and have it dumped with no regard to the flow of it into our lagoon and then the same Ocean we share with Japan. I would hazard a guess that the data study saying the chlorine sludge is safe is equally “insufficient and incomplete to support an assessment of safety to release” it into the environment as much as the one completed with regards to Fukushima nuclear wastewater.

A front-page photo of Brown’s visit shows some of the leaders standing in a line next to each other shaking hands in unison. Brown with Kishida on his left both shake the others right hand. Standing to Brown’s right side the Honourable Kitlang Kabua from the Republic of the Marshall Islands extends her right hand to Brown who cross overs his left hand to hold hers. On the other side of Kabua stands Henry Puna, Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum. Instead of extending his right hand across to her – the one most recognised as the hand that shows trust and loyalty, he instead holds hers with his left which is more awkward and rests his right hand on his left arm. Was this a humble mistake or was the chess master showing his true colours?

Pedantic? Maybe but don’t underestimate the power of a statement and the lack of ritual commitment. If Puna was Putin the gesture would not go unchallenged or debated nor would it be likely to be forgotten.

This happened one other time with a similar line up handshake between allies Britain Prime Minister Winston Churchill, American President Harry Truman and USSR President Josef Stalin at the surrender of Nazi Germany after the end of World War ll. Truman and Stalin shake with right hands but Churchill is doing a Puna and not engaging with his right hand. Mind you it was possibly a physical inability for Churchill to reach his right arm across his body to Truman.  A week after the photo was taken Churchill lost his seat as Prime Minister in a landslide vote. A year later the alliance became a cold war as the iron curtain between east and west formed.