Essential Handshake Guide

The eight handshakes you absolutely need to know

Words: Dylan Muhlenberg | Illustrations: Kobie Nieuwoudt

It should be as simple as clasping hands, giving two pumps and then releasing. So why then does shaking hands leave us so shaken? In South Africa things are getting especially out of hand. 11 official languages? Fine. But when you have one thousand unofficial handshakes then meeting someone requires translating a five-fingered Tower of Babel and you may as well be attempting to learn sign language.

This is why we desperately need some sort of handshake etiquette in order to stop greetings that are uncoordinated, clammy or crap. Some things to remember: someone needs to assume the leadership role and strongly signal what type of handshake they’re going in with, when in doubt, stick to the basics, and if you peruse our list below you should be able to navigate your way through life without embarrassment.

The norm

In a perfect world we’d all agree to greet with the common-or-garden, middle-of-the-road, grown-ass-man handshake. That’s the straightforward lining up and then clasping of right hands, two pumps and release. Not too hard, not too soft, but baby bear – just right. When we depart we can do it again. You see? foolproof! The only thing to remember here is to not be a deadfish limpwrister or machismo-laden handcrusher.

The politician

Unless you’re in politics, the politician's handshake (that move where after performing the norm you then sandwich the other person's hand with your free hand) is off-limits. Likewise, grabbing the other guy’s elbow – as classy as it seems. And unless you’re a used-car salesmen you should never hold on for longer than a single “One Mississippi”. 

The five-finger-cracker-snapper

This is the most common of all the newfangled hipster hand-greetings. As irritating as it is, it’s a helluva lot easier to pull off than some of their more complex hand-dances with the thumb wars, palm slaps, nipple twists and an interval at half-time. These hipster handshakes, when met with a standard, firm handshake, or even something as edgy as a hi-five, will alway leaves you feeling like a guy who listens to Radio 5 in his white Polo. So how do you pull it off? Stick your hand out in a sort of vertical karate chop, slide it against the other guy’s hand, then hook your fingertips with his and form a close grip, lining up your thumbs that you then bring together in a click. What you actually say to a person who feels the need to perform such intricate hand choreography? Your guess is as good as ours.

High five

Easy, right? Wrong! Because naturally someone is always going to go high when you’re slipping it low, or low when you’re holding it up high, or worse still, leave you hanging… Then you get the guy who because you high-fived him at the beginning of the evening feels it’s open season and wants to slap palms with every punchline, every round of drinks, or every time a pretty girl walks past. Amirite? Up here! Play me! Don’t leave me hanging, bru! Attaboy! Ha-ha!

My brother

Also known as the “African handshake” which we’d never be caught dead saying because that’s racist. That said, it’s still a thing, and you, sir, need to know how to do it. Start with a firm handclasp, swap once to an inverted handclasp, and then revert back to the initial handclasp. You know, so that the grasp is effortlessly changed midway by both parties, but quickly... Still not with us? You may be white. It’s a three-stage process of grip, swing palm around thumb area and grip again. Seeing as I’ve explained it three times you should be able to pull one off, but then given our diverse, cultural misunderstandings and misconceptions, unless you’ve walked a mile in another man’s Carvelas it’s even more difficult knowing when it’s okay to use it. Especially if you’ve been born with the racial handicap of being white. Will you come across as patronising if you do it and the person with melanin doesn’t? And if you don’t do it, and they do, will you look like a honky for not being down? Good luck figuring it out, champ. 

The hug and pound

Don’t even think of grabbing a Father Coffee if you haven’t got this on lock. Rather just settle on the insipid stuff they serve at the Engen until you’ve marathon-watched enough Vuzu and know who Amanda du-Pont is. Otherwise, trust us, it’s not worth trying, as it’s hard enough coordinating a single hand, without bringing in the other arm and more bodily contact than either of the parties involved ever imagined sharing with another straight man since their days of boarding school rugby. After all, handshakes were invented by our nervously heterosexual forefathers to keep your dick at arm's length from the other guy’s, right?

The fist bump

This one is great as you’re not inviting whatever the other guy has been handling all day to contaminate your own open palm. What’s not so great is when you go in for a bump but the other guy’s hand is extended in a regular handshake, and so you turn your rock to paper just in time to meet his rock… Worse still is when neither of you alter your shake style and one dude is grabbing hold of the other guy’s fist and kind of pulling on it like a one-armed bandit. And remember, there is no need to mouth the words 'Boom!', ever. 

The head nod

You want to know why the Japanese are a superior race with amazing mathematical skills and the most entertaining reality TV shows this side of Takashi’s Castle? It’s the bow. There’s no room for error, and when you’re saving all that time on not having to predict, decipher, abort or correct a handshake you have plenty of time to spend on the things that matter – like factorising, and karaoke.

Okay, so now that you’ve read our handshake guide you may ask yourself, "What does one do when greeting a person who isn’t a man?", or perhaps "Do these rules still apply if one happens to not be a man?". Oh, boy. Do yourself a favour and just run away. Rather go and become a hermit somewhere quiet and speak to squirrels instead of maneuvering yourself around the myriad messes that you can make when greeting someone of a gender that is not your own – there's a whole world of chaste hugs and pecks on the cheek which have been created presumably for the benefit of delicate little lady hands, or the most fragile of masculinities, and which will inevitably embarrass you. Don't think about it for now – skip instead to learning about all the ways you're sure to let yourself down when saying goodbye