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Our sense of touch is probably one of the most important ones. We’re constantly touching things, getting a feel of the world and everything that surrounds us with our hands and feet. Can I walk on this tree trunk? Is this cushion soft enough?

But touch can also serve as another language, as another way of expressing ourselves. And like every language, it is complex and worth studying. Obviously, it’s not only things we touch—our interactions with other people are marked by touch, too. The way we touch others says a lot about ourselves, our feelings and intentions, and it greatly differs depending on our culture. 

Love, fear, comfort, dominance—those are all things we can let others know with a simple touch. When we stroke our pet or caress someone’s cheek, we’re demonstrating our affection towards them. But just like that, one same gesture can also mean a whole range of different things: when we place a hand upon someone’s shoulder when they’re nervous, chances are we’re trying to get them to calm down. In another situation, a firm shoulder grip can also be a reminder of who’s in charge, or maybe even a “well done”.

Naturally, we don’t touch every person we know in the same way. There will be more casual and affectionate touching with people we trust and feel comfortable with. And not everyone wants to be touched, either. For example, there’s not too much touching involved in the US or in Britain, though it is common in Spain to kiss people on the cheek as a greeting—no matter if they’re our acquaintance or not.

Physical contact is bound to make a connection between people, and one of the most important and universal forms of contact consists in shaking hands. 

Socially, the handshake is a sign of mutual respect, having been practiced by men and women for centuries. It’s been thought to have developed in Roman times as a gesture that demonstrated neither side carried a weapon in their right hand, as a sign of peace. The earliest written records of handshaking we have are from the Egyptians, but it’s probable that this gesture predates written history, which makes it more difficult to track down. This small and apparently simple gesture has been used to declare peace, sign all kinds of contracts, form nations and even arrange marriages. Nowadays, we use other means to seal our businesses, but we keep the tradition of shaking our hands, to represent and honour that ancient way of making a commitment.

Now, is there only one way of shaking another’s hand? Fact is, there are more than one, and fact is, also, that each kind of handshake will convey a different kind of message. So, choose wisely depending on the situation:

  • The Upper Hand Handshake. Offering your hand with your palm down—if you want to show dominance, this is the one for you. A handshake often seen in power struggles, the one who maintains the upper hand wins.

  • The Submissive Handshake. This is you giving the other person the upper hand willingly, offering your hand with your palm upwards.

  • The Double-Hander Handshake. According to JFK’s study in handshaking, this is the most effective one. Place your left hand upon the other’s right one. It’s a handshake that conveys warmth, support and enthusiasm. On the other side, it will also give you control over the one you’re shaking hands with, since you’re restricting their right hand. It’s a win-win situation, right? Also, if someone gives you an upper hand handshake, turning it into a double-hander will allow you to switch the power from him to you.

How was this for a lesson on handshaking? If you want to know even more about how to shake hands and other useful life hacks, tune in to Going Deep with David Rees, premiering in October!