Handshakes: not always innocent

Handshakes have been in the news lately. On his overseas trip, President Trump greeted a number of world leaders, usually with a handshake. The President, according to CNN, “seems to view the handshake as a sort of battle of wills and a battle for power all wrapped into one”. The CNN article discusses a number of examples. Most recently, there was a lengthy, combative handshake with France’s new President, Emmanuel Macron. According to a Washington Post reporter, “They shook hands for an extended period of time. Each president gripped the other’s hand with considerable intensity, their knuckles turning white and their jaws clenching and faces tightening”. Handshakes most often are a simple component of a greeting or departure ritual. But sometimes they have more significance. In an interview yesterday in France Dimanche, Macron said this about the handshake: “Ma poignée de main avec lui, ce n’est pas innocent…Il faut montrer qu’on ne fera pas de petites concessions, même symboliques” (My handshake with him was not without significance…It’s important to demonstrate that there will be no small concessions, even those of a symbolic nature). Macon was using the handshake as a gesture of defiance and independence, resisting the alpha male persona of the US President.

In the US a “firm” handshake, along with the pulling and tugging often used by Trump, is seen as normal male behavior in the business community. It’s not the same in the rest of the world; a handshake is seen as a friendly gesture, not an opportunity to be aggressive and show dominance. As commentator Joe Navarro remarks, that is particularly the case in diplomatic circles: “Diplomacy is about getting along. One of the things we do with our handshakes is we establish comfort. We’re saying, ‘I’m your friend. I’m the person you’re going to be working with.’ That’s what the handshake is supposed to be for, not some sort of sophomoric challenge between two alpha males.” In some parts of the world, business transactions, including negotiating over prices, occurs while men continue to hold hands. In that case, it is less a contest of wills, than it is a symbol of working together to reach consensus. Not a bad model for diplomacy.

Why Americans Smile

I was in Russia last year, my third visit, and noticed again how solemn everyone seemed to be. In public transportation and on the street, there was not a lot of chit-chat, or smiling. Of course, that’s not surprising in Moscow – similar to New York City in that regard. But I was in Pyatigorsk, a resort town in the Caucuses, and it was summer. In terms of not seeing a lot of smiling faces on the street (or especially, in my experience, in service encounters), Russia is no different than many other countries. Germany, for one, comes to mind. But one country that is different is the United States. We tend to smile a lot. Smiling for no good reason is likely to make Russians think you’re a bit off. Walmart was not successful in Germany in part because managers insisted that cashiers smiled at customers. That irritated many Germans, after all, the customer didn’t know the cashier, so why act as if they are friends? That behavior would be akin to the cashier using the informal you, “du”, in addressing the customer, rather than the formal “Sie”. Some German men thought the cashiers were flirting with them.

So, why do Americans smile so much. That was a question addressed this week in the Atlantic. The answer, according to the article is surprising: “It turns out that countries with lots of immigration have historically relied more on nonverbal communication. Thus, people there might smile more.” The authors of a study published in 2015 compared countries in terms of the number of source countries that make up their population: “Canada and the United States are very diverse, with 63 and 83 source countries, respectively, while countries like China and Zimbabwe are fairly homogenous, with just a few nationalities represented in their populations.” The researches polled people from 32 countries about expressing feelings openly. They found that “emotional expressiveness was correlated with diversity. In other words, when there are a lot of immigrants around, you might have to smile more to build trust and cooperation, since you don’t all speak the same language.” So citizens of countries with more diversity smile in order to bond socially. On the other hand, “countries without significant influxes of outsiders tend to be more hierarchical, and nonverbal communication helps maintain these delicate power structures.”

The article points out that not only do US inhabitants smile more, their smiles are also wider, with higher levels of “facial muscle movement.” The article doesn’t discuss whether all the smiles in the US are genuine, that seems especially doubtful in the section of the article discussing how extensively politicians in the US smile.

Germany has been experiencing in recent years a large influx of immigrants, from a variety of countries – who knows, maybe next time you’re in Berlin, you’ll see more smiles.