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Handshake Cultural Norm

Cultures across the globe have societal and cultural rules to promote politeness, to maintain social order, and to have a cultural identity. In the United States, societal rules vary greatly with location and nationality, but one societal rule that most people follow is a handshake. Handshakes have been a cultural ritual for a large part of human history, and is used across the world. The typical handshake is used as a greeting, but it has a variety of uses and is used in many social contexts.

Some basic examples include a formal business greeting, a common hello for friends, or a sign of agreement between two parties. So for the past three days, I decided to break a cultural rule and try to not shake anyone’s hand. The reason why I chose to not shake anyone’s hand for three days is because a handshake is used in almost every interaction or new conversation that I have with people. The type of handshake that occurs between another person and myself usually creates the context for the situation.

A firm handshake signifies that it is a conversation of importance, and is to be taken seriously. A light, less-firm handshake signals that it is a relaxed conversation where the conversation is less serious. This small gesture carries a lot of importance within my culture and my societal rules. I found that it was very hard to upkeep this ban because it was something that I habitually do every day. The two types of reactions that I got where either the person offering the handshake would pretend that they never offered, or that the person would ask why I wasn’t shaking their hand.

The group that would ask explained (after I told them about the study I was performing) that they felt disrespected or thought that I was angry at them. They immediately felt that something was wrong with our conversation. Many of them would stop the conversation entirely and immediately inquire about the rejection of their handshake. In turn, this made me feel uncomfortable with a lot of the conversations that I had. If the people who asked me what was wrong felt anger or disrespected, it was probable the group that ignored the rejection felt the same way.

In every conversation I was constantly second guessing myself or trying to figure out if the lack of a handshake changed the mood of the conversation. On the last day I finally asked a friend of mine who was ignoring my rejection of a handshake. He replied that he wasn’t disappointed or angry, but genuinely thought that I just hadn’t seen his gesture for a handshake. This response gave me some relief, but I still had my doubts. The meaning I found after conducting this study is that the simple gesture of a handshake can contain a lot of meaning.

If there isn’t a handshake before or after the conversation, I assume that there was something I said during the conversation or there was something I did before we had the conversation. In my opinion, the value of the conversation that I had with an individual is based on a handshake. This cultural rule is more important to me than I originally thought. After talking to some of my friends who participated in this study, they seemed to fell the same way. My friends felt that if they talked to me without a handshake, the social interaction that previously occurred wasn’t authentic.

After gathering all of this information, I concluded that cultural rules are so highly habitual for society that any change to the daily routine can be taken with hostility or a misunderstanding. This rule that I was breaking wasn’t meant to offend or hurt anyone, but most of the time the lack of a handshake was taken as an insult from the other party. Many felt rejected because even though they put out a gesture of kindness, not shaking their hand implied that the kindness wasn’t mutual. Cultural rules, especially the handshake, has so much importance in our society but goes unnoticed.

It seems second nature to high five a friend after an accomplishment, or to shake the hand of someone your thanking for doing you a favor. Another thing I learned about cultural rules is that they are learned from our peers and family from a very young age. This study made me reflect on all of the times that handshakes where important in my life. This learned cultural rule has been taught to me since infancy, and has been used everyday since then. Even when I was younger, my friends and I had a handshake that was unique to ourselves.

Every time we greeted each other we would perform our secret handshake, and every time it felt special. Handshakes have had a cultural significance for most of my life, and it will most likely continue for the rest. After this study I found out a lot about how comfortable I am in awkward situations and how much I value what other people think of me. I think this constant concern for image is driven by our school’s culture. I feel that at a small school, an individual’s actions are magnified and spread through a smaller social network.

After performing this study, I found that people where inquiring about the study even if they weren’t involved. Friends of friends would come up to me at social events and ask how my study was going as a conversation starter. Of course I wasn’t offended or bothered by people asking about my anthropology class, but it made me worry that people are talking about things that I don’t want them talking about. This study made me find out that I’m a self conscious person that likes the approval of my peers around me.

But I’m not sure if being self conscious is a good or bad thing. On one hand caring about your self image helps me make the right cultural and societal choices. If I follow the societal rules diligently, then other people will give me more respect. But on the other hand, worrying about what other people think makes me make my decisions and actions based on what other people want. If I want to have a positive social image, I have to occasionally sacrifice what I truly want in order to make other people happy.

What I found fascinating is how such a small action can have an impact on my mood for the day. While I was working on this project, I didn’t feel like my natural self. It was hard to concentrate on other things because peers gesture for handshakes so often that I had to constantly think about the social consequences of not shaking their hand. Although this was insightful, I found the whole experience very inconvenient. After thoroughly reflecting on this project I can personally solidify that cultural rules are extremely important to me and my peers.

Although I can’t speak for society as a whole, my personal circle extremely values the social consequences of breaking these rules. The act of a handshake is a valuable rule that most take for granted. Having to constantly explain why you can’t take their handshake is a challenge by itself, let alone not showing an appreciation for another individual’s conversation. It may seem that not accepting handshakes is an easy task, but I can assure you that the social anxiety that comes with refusing handshakes is a hefty inconvenience.

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