The handshake isn’t just an abstract symbol of greeting or congratulations. It is a real interaction—a moment of physical connection through the actual touching of hands. That contact serves to ever so briefly create a bond between the people shaking hands. It reinforces the message being communicated through speech. That’s why it is so important when we greet each other.
Typically, Americans aren’t touchy-feely people. Studies have shown that we really get uncomfortable if a person stands closer to us than eighteen inches. So it stands to reason that the physical contact of a handshake is a moment in which we impinge on that comfort zone and assure each other of our trust and pleasure at being together.
Besides greetings, handshakes are commonly used when we offer congratulations. One of the most recognized moments of congratulation occurs during graduation ceremonies, only in this case the person doing the congratulating doesn’t do it just once, he or she can be on the hook to shake hundreds if not thousands of hands in a short period of time.
Does the handshake at graduation matter and is it worth the possible discomfort the president or chancellor or whoever will experience after so many handshakes? The LA Times examined the question in a June 19 article Graduations can be a real handful. It seems the congratulatory handshake is still perceived as an important part of the graduation ceremony: “UC Santa Cruz Chancellor George Blumenthal attended seven graduation ceremonies over three days last weekend — shaking about 3,500 hands. He's averaged that many for the last seven years, he said. 'Some years my hand has been sore, one year my shoulder hurt, but I was in pretty good shape this year,' he said. 'I'm honored to do it. Every hand I shook, those students worked hard for four years and accomplished a lot — that's what keeps me going.'"
As you attend graduation ceremonies this year, enjoy the moment that has arrived and is a culmination of years of work. Appreciate the moment when your graduate receives a diploma and shakes hands. And then, as you watch the procession of hundreds or more cross the dais, take a moment to appreciate the person doing the handshaking, too.
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About the author
Since 2004, Peter Post has tackled readers' questions in The Boston Sunday Globe's weekly business etiquette advice column, Etiquette at Work. Post is the co-author of "The Etiquette Advantage in Business" and conducts business etiquette seminars across the country. In October 2003 his book "Essential Manners For Men" was released and quickly became a New York Times best seller. He is also the author of "Essential Manners for Couples," "Playing Through–A Guide to the Unwritten Rules of Golf," and co-author of "A Wedding Like No Other." Post is Emily Post's great-grandson. His media appearances include "CBS Sunday Morning," CBS's "The Early Show," NBC's "Today," ABC's "Good Morning America," and "Fox News."