Why Do People Shake Hands?

Most of us follow customs and manners without stopping to think why we do them. For example, why do people shake hands? Luckily, the question occurred to some researchers at Weizmann Institute of Science. The researchers observed 153 volunteers and discovered that people tend to sniff their own hands after shaking hands with another person, similar to the way dogs test each other's scents. The study indicates that humans may be using social chemosignalling far more than we assume.

The researchers wanted to better understand how humans transmit and use chemosensory signals. They looked at one of the most common ways in which humans touch one another-- handshakes. Simple observation showed that after a handshake, people generally touched their face with the same hand. However, researchers needed to confirm whether there was actual smelling taking place. So they attached instruments to the volunteers in order to measure airflow to the nose. The study showed that after shaking hands, volunteers smelled their hand, similar to the way that dogs and rats use scent for signalling.

More about handshaking:

  • Handshaking is believed to date back to 5th Century Greece.
  • Handshakes transfer the chemicals squalene and hexadecanoic acid.
  • Handshake etiquette varies from country to country. Some countries prefer a firm handshake, while others a weak one.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the historical origin of the handshake?

The handshake has a long history, with some of the earliest depictions found in ancient Greek art from the 5th century BC. It is believed to have originated as a gesture of peace, demonstrating that neither party was carrying a weapon. According to the ancient historian Polybius, handshakes were also a symbol of trust and balanced power, used in diplomatic and military contexts.

How has the meaning of a handshake evolved over time?

Over centuries, the handshake has evolved from a gesture of peace to a sign of greeting, respect, and agreement. In the Middle Ages, knights would shake hands to shake loose any hidden weapons. In the 17th century, Quakers popularized the handshake over bows and hats as a more egalitarian form of greeting. Today, it is commonly used in both social and professional settings to convey goodwill, finalize agreements, and introduce oneself.

Are there cultural differences in how handshakes are performed?

Yes, cultural differences significantly influence handshake practices. For instance, in some Asian countries, a bow may be preferred over a handshake, or the handshake might be softer and less firm. In contrast, a firm handshake is often expected in Western business contexts. Additionally, the duration and vigor of the handshake can vary by culture, with some places favoring longer and more vigorous handshakes.

What is the significance of the handshake in professional settings?

In professional settings, the handshake is a non-verbal form of communication that can convey confidence, establish rapport, and set the tone for a meeting or negotiation. A firm, confident handshake is often associated with professionalism and competence. It is also a customary way to conclude agreements and contracts, symbolizing mutual consent and the sealing of a deal.

Has the practice of shaking hands changed due to health concerns, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Yes, the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted the practice of shaking hands. Health concerns have led to a global reevaluation of the handshake as a greeting due to the potential for virus transmission. Alternatives like elbow bumps, waves, or verbal greetings became more common to minimize contact. Some experts suggest that the handshake may see a decline in popularity or be reserved for more formal occasions post-pandemic.

Discussion Comments


I learned that this was a way to indicate that no weapons were being held with which to harm the other.


I have read that the handshake originated as a gesture of peace by moving the open hand open forward and thus demonstrating that the hand does not hold a weapon.

I have never sniffed my hand after a hand shake nor have I ever seen anyone do that. I will watch more closely in future.

I do wipe my face if someone leaves saliva on my cheek after a cheek kiss.


No, it's from the days of old where knights held their swords in their right hands. They changed sword hands and shook to be fair in a fight.

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