Respect, Handshakes, and Humanity Greetings

According to one anthropologist, the handshake evolved in medieval Europe, during the times of knights. It seems not all were knights were virtuous. More than a few would approach opponents with concealed weapons and when within striking distance pull out a dagger or a sword and plunge it into the unsuspecting opponent.

To fend off the fear of this kind of nasty business, knights took to offering their open and visibly empty hand to each other. It was a kind of surety, a gesture of trust which said, “See, I am unarmed, so you may safely let me approach.” As the story goes, soon the gesture itself took on meaning and the less noble, less lethal man on the street adopted the handshake as the proper way to greet others.

We do a lot of handshaking in the United States where we are outgoing, forceful, and externalized. We are told We are unabashedly acquisitive, defining our progress in life by how much we have — how much wealth, influence, stored up knowledge, status or whatever. Every culture exhibits these traits to some extent, but there are several Eastern and South Pacific cultures where people are generally taught to be more introspective, more concerned with the quality of things than their quantity, more attuned with the interior spiritual life. In these cultures people do not shake hands when they meet. They may hug formally or kiss one another on the cheek, as in Eastern Europe and Arab states. They may bow softly, eyes turned to the ground, as in Japan and China. The Hawaiian greeting, termed “honi,” consists of placing the nostril gently beside that of the person greeted, a kind of sharing the breath of life. For Hindu(s) the greeting of choice is “Namaste,” the two hands pressed together and held near the heart with the head gently bowed as one says, “Namaste.” Thus it is both a spoken greeting and a gesture. The prayerful hand position is meant “to adorn, honor, celebrate or anoint.” Namaste means “I bow to you.” I am sure there are a lot of things going on in the heads of Americans when they shake hands, but I don’t think “I bow to you” is one of them.

It is always interesting, often revealing and occasionally enlightening to think about the everyday cultural traits and habits that evolve in different cultures around the globe. It is amazing how our little gestures can portray so much about how we view life and our fellow man.

By a handshake we Americans acknowledge our equality with others and not necessarily our “Respect”. We convey how strong we are, how nervous, how aggressive or passive. There is bold physicality to it, but it does very little to convey respect for each others humanity. For these and other reasons, Popes never shake hands. Kings never shake hands. Even mothers don’t shake< hands with their own children. I think shaking hands is more about power than it is about humanity.

The humanity greetings of Namaste, kisses, and cheek touching for example, are quite different than handshakes. Kings Namaste, Guru(s) Namaste, nobles touch cheeks, and mothers kiss their own family. Just as many venerate our God, a holy man or even a holy place, our humanity greeting bespeaks of our inner valuing of the sacredness of the humanity in everyone we meet. It reminds us in a graphic manner, that we can see a reflection of our own humanity in everyone we meet. It is saying, silently, “I recognize the humanity in us both, and bow with respect before it.”

Initiating even our most mundane encounters with a humanity greeting can change everything. Instead of being short with the people I love the most, I give more of myself to them. Instead of walking by the custodian in the hall, I give him a humanity greeting and take interest in his day. Instead of passing it off, I see the sadness in the cashier’s eyes and offer a kind word. I take the time to stop and “chat” with my neighbor instead of rushing off to the next thing on my Saturday to do list. I start to fill my life with conscious purposeful actions that respect humanity rather than honor a faceless schedule.

Try offering a humanity greeting instead of a handshake the next time the situation presents itself. You might get a strange look, but behind that look is a soul beaming in the light of the respect and honor you are giving them.