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Inside looking out: Let’s shake on it

Published March 09. 2018 10:28PM

Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant did it to end the Civil War. Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley did it uncomfortably in front of a camera. President Harry Truman, once the leader of the free world, did it with Josef Stalin, who was responsible for the deaths of more than 20 million people in the Soviet Union.

I did it yesterday with a very good friend of mine.

A handshake between two people can signify a simple greeting or it can end a 25 year long war as it did between Egypt and Israel.

This cross-cultural gesture began in fifth century Greece as a sign of peace if there were no weapons held in the hands that came together. Historically, men shake hands more than women and the Netherlands and Belgium lead the world in the number of times two hands are grasped, if you can believe somebody actually keeps track.

If you come across a mixed group of men and women in Switzerland, the custom is to shake hands with the females first. In Austria, it’s common for adults to shake hands with children. Moroccans will shake your hand and then kiss each side of your face. The Chinese handshakes last for the longest times. The Russians shake hardly at all.

The Japanese prefer not to squeeze the hands together, while in the U.S., this “dead fish” handshake is considered to be an obligatory gesture and thought of as unwelcoming to the person who extends the firm hand. Shaking with your right hand while you have your left hand in your pocket is received as a sign of disrespect.

I prefer a South Korean handshake. While shaking with my right hand, I firmly grasp the back of the his right wrist with my left hand. I believe this is the most sincere of all handshake protocols.

Politicians often perform a “hand hug” in which they create a cocoon with all four hands clasped together. You have to wonder nowadays if their handshakes are trustworthy. In my mind, a broken agreement after a handshake would make me break all ties with the disingenuous person.

If anyone cares to know, the longest handshake ended after 33 hours and three minutes on Jan. 14, 2011, in New York City. Four men from Nepal and New Zealand now share the world record according to the Guinness Book of Records.

In 2009, certain doctors suggested a fist bump should replace the handshake because of the increasing number of bacterial infections passed from hand-to-hand contact. For me, I will continue to take my chances with the adults and only fist bump with younger children because it’s cool and less awkward for them.

I’ve always admired a ritual that professional hockey players perform once they have completed a Stanley Cup playoff series. After extreme physical play that includes slamming bodies against the boards around the ice rink and slug-it-out fistfights, the two teams meet at center ice and exchange gentlemen handshakes in a true symbol of sportsmanship.

Speaking of fistfights, I had a few in my childhood, and after a black eye here and a bloody nose there, we would rise up from the ground totally exhausted and shake hands, signifying the war of words between us was over and our shake was now a nonverbal, agreed-upon peace treaty.

Many young boys from my childhood would cut their fingers and mingle their blood in an oath to become blood brothers for life, which sometimes lasted for no more than a few weeks.

A firm handshake is an oath of responsibility from man to man that whatever be the agreement, each man is obliged to keep it.

In my lifetime, I have shaken the hands of Yankee baseball legends, Phil Rizzuto and Yogi Berra and former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes. I have shaken the hands of thousands of high school students who departed my classroom on their last days of school. I don’t remember all their names or faces of course, but I do know that along with each shake came my sincere look into his or her eyes.

Dutch theologian Henri Nouwen said, “Our humanity comes to its fullest bloom in giving. We become beautiful people when we give whatever we can give: a smile, a handshake, a kiss, an embrace, a word of love, a present, a part of our life … all of our life.”

The other day, my 13-year-old son and I sealed an agreement together with a firm handshake. I could see in his eyes and feel in his hand that this one simple yet beautiful act between a father and his son was a special moment that neither he nor I will soon forget.

Rich Strack can be reached at

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