Why do the British greet with open hands

Greeting rituals are culturally different

When we meet, we involuntarily stretch out our right hand to the other: For millions of people around the world, shaking hands is a familiar greeting ritual. But as natural as shaking hands is in many places - lately it has sparked heated debates several times. In the summer in Berlin, for example, an imam of Turkish descent refused to shake hands with his son's teacher when he was talking to parents. The teacher insisted in vain. Eventually she broke off the conversation and complained about a lack of respect and misogyny. The imam in turn felt discriminated against and his religious dignity violated.

Similar cases have been preoccupying the media and society for months. The CDU politician Julia Klöckner canceled a meeting with an imam last autumn - he had announced that he would not shake her hand in greeting. Shortly afterwards, the Muslim professional footballer Nacer Barazite from FC Utrecht refused to shake hands with a TV reporter after an interview. In Switzerland, a school authority even made behavior compulsory after two Muslim students refused to shake hands with their teacher for religious reasons.

This article is included in Spectrum - The Week, 47/2016

When and under what circumstances the behavior arose, which, depending on the cultural background, appears self-evident or provokes rejection, is in the dark. "In ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, people apparently shook hands a few thousand years ago," says Wulf Schiefenhövel, human ethnologist and anthropologist at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen. "Another exciting question is: What was before? And a look at the traditional cultures still alive today shows that handshaking and handshaking were not overly widespread worldwide." It is interesting, however, that many cultures have now willingly accepted the handshake. Schiefenhövel cites groups in the highlands of New Guinea, where he has been researching for 50 years, as an example. "Originally people greeted each other by touching their forearms or shoulders. Today shaking hands is normal and widespread there."

Some view handshakes as an intimate physical relationship

On the other hand, there are regions of the world where shaking hands is still uncommon today, for example in Asia or Islamic societies. "In some cultures shaking hands, especially between women and men, is seen as an almost intimate physical relationship and therefore inappropriate," says the anthropologist. Incidentally, this is also the reason why women in upscale British circles are not greeted with a handshake, but with a bow and a "How do you do?"

There are reservations about shaking hands not only from some cultural point of view - also from a medical point of view. As early as 2014, researchers from the University of California in Los Angeles warned in the specialist magazine "JAMA": Hands transmit bacteria and germs. In order to minimize the risk of infection, the handshake should be banned from hospitals. In their study, however, the medical professionals pointed out that refusing to shake hands could entail social, political and even financial risks for people. In exceptional situations, people keep physically at a distance from one another in everyday life - for example out of fear of infection, such as during the Ebola epidemic in West Africa two years ago. According to media reports, the Anglican Church in Nigeria even suspended the handshake during the sacrament. And some communities in Sierra Leone have fined handshakes.

"Shaking hands and shaking hands was not overly widespread worldwide" (Wulf Schiefenhövel)

British researchers have now underpinned the general risk of infection through hand contact with an experiment. One participant dipped a rubber glove into a liquid full of bacteria. Then he greeted a second participant with a sterile glove in three ways: first with a handshake, then by gently bumping their fists together - a "fist bump". And finally they clapped their palms over their heads, a "high five". The dirty truth: about twice as many bacteria were transmitted by shaking hands as by the "high five". Compared to the "fist bump" there were ten times as many.