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British Scholars Schooled on Handshakes

British Scholars Schooled on Handshakes

In the days of old, when knights were bold, and fist bumps weren't invented, they made their stands, and shook their hands, and battles were prevented.

That is, back in the Middle Ages, when two knights met and they weren't in the mood to do battle, each knight would extend an empty right hand — preferably their own — to show the other that they were unarmed and did not intend to start swinging a sword around.

The two men would then grip their empty hands, shake them a few times to hear their armor rattle, and that was that. They would then go about their day, sweating inside a form-fitting metal coffin, unable to go to the bathroom properly.

These days, a handshake is more generic greeting with fewer violent overtones. It conveys warmth and friendliness, and is one of those things we were all taught to do when we were very young.

There are even some basic rules about shaking hands: In a social setting, men should let the woman offer her hand first; if they don't, don't offer yours. In business, let the person of higher authority offer their hand first; if they don't, offer yours. Don't offer the dead fish or do the bone crusher. And don't offer your hand to someone who can't shake it, either because their hands are full or they have a disability.

You watched your parents shake hands with other people, friends and strangers. When you were eight, you were told to apologize and shake hands with the kid you fought with at recess. When you played sports, everyone lined up and shook hands with each other after the game.

Even today, professional athletes will gather at center court, center ice, or in the middle of the field, and shake hands with each other. I especially like the way hockey players line up like we did when were little kids, and go through the line, shaking hands with every player.

It actually bothers me quite a lot that professional baseball players don't do this. Like good sportsmanship is not important, or unnecessary. Even football players who were beating the bejeezus out of each other just 30 seconds before will often embrace, and many of them will kneel and hold hands to pray in the middle of the field.

But baseball? Nope, the winning team just congratulates themselves, and the losing team sulks in the dugout. I love baseball, but that's the lowest point of any game.

Still, we've all shaken enough hands in our lives to know the basic rules and etiquette. We don't need any pointers or training on how it's done, right? Especially if you belong to an elite group of very intelligent people.

Or not.

Cambridge University is providing their dons (professors) with advice on the intricacies of the handshake, and the whole thing has the dons shaking their fists.

The Cambridge administrators, who apparently have forgotten that they have some of the smartest people in England on campus, have sent out a directive to its dons, asking them to read handshaking instructions and to take an online training course on handshaking.

"We are not social misfits," one anonymous don told the (London) Daily Telegraph. "We know when to shake someone's hand and when not too. All this seems to be stupid and pointless."

The instructions the dons received said "There is a certain amount of cultural sensitivity relating to handshakes. Suitable body language conveys welcome just as well." The admissions department was worried that the dons would horribly offend some students, like Muslim and women — who do not shake hands — and people with certain disabilities.

Apparently, the advice did not elaborate on "suitable body language" phase, but I'm guessing the loving embrace of a warm hug or a 27-step hip hop handshake were also on the Don't list.

Sally Hunt, Cambridge's College Union general secretary, told the Daily Telegraph, "while I am sure this advice is well-intentioned, academics are grown-ups and are intelligent enough to know when to shake a person's hand or not."

To be fair, I've known a couple hundred academics in my day, and let's just say I'll raise an eyebrow at the whole "intelligent grown-up" assessment.

Still, I do believe that most people, including university academics have more sense than a basket of apples, and know when and how to shake hands with people. Just follow the basic rules we all learned when we were kids, and you'll be fine.

Also, leave your swords at home.

My book, Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself (affiliate link), is available on, as well as at Barnes & Noble and Borders bookstores. I wrote it with my good friend, Kyle Lacy.

My NEW book, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide to Social Media Marketing is also out. You can get it from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million in October, or get it for the Kindle or Nook.

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  1. This is funny. I've definitely been a part of some "27 step" hip hop handshake. In fact, where I grew up in my upscale Gary, IN penthouse, it was considered rude not to shake EVERYONE's hand when you arrived and departed. So if there were 30 people there when you got there, there was a lot of shaking going on!

  2. Hello Erik,

    It's been a while since we last chatted. I hope this post finds you enjoying this holiday week!

    As always, I love your insight and positivity. That's why it pains me to disagree with one of your comments above – "…just follow the basic rules we all learned when we were kids." As an image consultant, I've learned this simply isn't true for everyone.

    It would be absolutely wonderful if we could assume all business professionals have learned the rules of handshaking from their parents, educational environment and/or previous work environment. Unfortunately, this isn't a safe assumption. I work with tons of business professionals each year who learn these rules for the first time from me!

    The good news is that employers are noticing that these essential soft skills are not always taught by parents and educational environments. Therefore, they are taking it upon themselves to provide employees with this education and training.

    We also have to remember gender differences still exist. It is my experience that young men are taught far more often than young ladies how to shake hands properly during childhood. Sad, but true. This, of course, is slowly changing over time but not as quickly as we would like to think.

    For any parents reading your blog post, I hope this serves as a gentle reminder that they can set their child up for success by teaching them these rules of behavior at a young age.

    Thank you for allowing me to share my thoughts, Erik. I wish you all the best in 2012!

    Starla West, Corporate Image Coach

  3. Starla,

    I'm actually a little surprised at the fact that people don't know how to shake hands. I figured there were the odd one or two who apply the Bone Crusher, but figured those are the same people who you have to remind not to speak too loudly in the library.

    Thanks for enlightening me.



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