November 7, 2012 by Ian Goldstein
On Oct. 3, President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney stood in front of a television viewing audience of an estimated 67.2 million people, according to the Nielsen ratings. In the months leading up to the debate, both Obama and Romney were conveying different reasons why the other was not equipped to lead. When Jim Lehrer announced them both, they walked over to one another sporting wide smiles. They approached each other, keeping their extended grins, and shook one another’s hands. This is one of the most heavily scrutinized parts of the election process and yet, after all the words that were said about one another, we as a nation expect civility between the two candidates. The handshake is the best representation of falseness. It’s a ritual that’s meant to demonstrate respect and cordiality, but it’s an act. These guys are in a competition. They’re not friends. They shake hands because they are supposed to.
What is it about shaking someone’s hand that’s able to bring enemies together? Look at the amount of photographs there are of adversaries shaking one another’s hands simply to save face. John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev during the ongoing conflict in Southeast Asia and ideological disagreements about nuclear disarmament; Hitler and Neville Chamberlain shaking hands as Chamberlain kept the peace, while Hitler had other plans; Elvis and Richard Nixon, men from different generations who came together after Elvis sent Nixon a letter seeking to assist Nixon’s administration by speaking to the youth about communist brainwashing techniques and drug abuse.
While some may like to imagine Christ treading Bethlehem’s ground, shaking his disciple’s hands, or Mohammed walking the land of Mecca holding the hands of his followers, the ritual began before either of these men lived. The handshake originated in Ancient Greece. In the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, there is a stele, or stone slab, dating back to 500 BC that depicts a priest and two soldiers shaking hands. “It was often used in Greek funerary art,” says Glenys Davies, a professor of classical archaeology the University at Edinburgh. “The handshake motif was widely used by Greek, Etruscan and Roman artists in both funerary and non-funerary contexts.” She says that the handshake had many associations including the parting from relatives at death, reunion with ancestors in the underworld and marriage. The handshake is also thought by some to have originated as a gesture of peace. According to an article from California State University called “Nonverbal Communication Helps Us Live,” since a soldier or warrior would normally hold a weapon in his right hand, by putting out one’s hand for the other to take, both would be revealing that neither possessed a weapon and in that moment, sought civility.
In United States culture shaking someone’s hand is a sign of respect and maturity. We’re taught from an early age that one should shake a person’s hand firmly and make direct eye contact to show cordiality, especially when interviewing for a job. Stephen Sullivan, a 21-year-old political science major at the University at Albany says that he started perform the ritual at a very young age. “I started shaking hands with people I met on a consistent basis when I was around five years old. I was first told to do that in pre-school, and then other people randomly told me along the way that shaking somebody’s hand shows confidence in yourself, and makes you seem personable and approachable.” When greeting or leaving anyone, Stephen says he always makes sure he shakes their hand and that he grips it well. Countries like the U.S. and Norway prefer firmly gripped handshakes, while Japan, China and Middle Eastern countries like Turkey consider a firm handshake rude. Politicians like doing the hand hug. We’ve all seen this—the handshake that covers the clenched hands with the remaining free hand, creating a cocoon. It’s a handshake the is meant to represent warmth, friendliness and trust, according to “Handshake: Student’s Book: A Course in Communication.” But the handhug signifies anything but that. Instead, it indicates effort, fakeness, an attempt at get someone to like us. This is what the handshake has become, a formality.
At the end of the Presidential debate, when Obama and Romney gave their two minute closings, each enumerated reasons why he should be elected. Romney said there were two paths the country would take, one right and one wrong. “There’s no question in my mind that if the President were to be reelected you’ll continue to see a middle class squeeze, with incomes going down and prices going up. I’ll get incomes up again…in my view [Obamacare] means a whole different way of life for people who counted on the insurance plan they had in the past. Many will lose it.” Only a minute later, after the debate was officially over, Obama and Romney smiled at one another and shook each other’s hands again. They patted one another on the arm as if they were old college buddies reuniting, glad to see each other one more time. It’s odd to see two men in blatant conflict shake hands and smile as if they were friends. We look for this a lot in our culture. We like to see that everything is ok, even if it’s not. We are relying one of these men to change our country, yet we can’t truly believe one man will ever have the power to make everyone content. We like to pretend. The handshake is pretend. It’s an act. It illustrates respect and civility, but simultaneously it is only a cover-up for what is actually there. We shake someone’s hand out of need, out of a sense that we’re ok, even if we’re not. We like to pretend that everything is fine.
There’s a picture of Harry Truman standing in between Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin in Potsdam, Germany, after the Nazi surrender. Churchill and Stalin are looking forward as Truman looks at directly at Stalin with a wide smile. Truman’s face says it all. They are engaged in a triple handshake, and at that moment they are overjoyed with the end of the war with Germany, but the future doesn’t appear too optimistic. Truman is aware that this ostentatious gesture is only that. It’s a façade, hiding what’s really going on beneath. Conflict is coming but at the moment of this picture, this handshake is a representation of unity, of peace before a future of fighting.