Why don’t you shake with your left?

There are a few main reasons why most people don’t shake hands using their left hand. Some of the key reasons include historical and cultural conventions, practicality due to most people being right-handed, and perceptions related to etiquette.

Key Reasons Not to Shake with the Left Hand

  • Historical and cultural conventions favor the right hand for handshakes in many societies.
  • Most people are right-handed, so it’s more natural to use the dominant hand.
  • Using the left hand can be seen as impolite or unconventional in some cultures.
  • The right hand is associated with strength, honor, and virtue in many traditions.
  • Shaking with the left may be awkward due to the handshake being far from the heart.

Let’s explore these reasons in more detail.

Historical and Cultural Conventions

Perhaps the most significant reason why most people don’t shake with the left hand is historical and cultural conventions. In many societies, the right hand has long been associated with strength, virtue, honesty, and pledge-making. The left hand, on the other hand, has been linked with dishonesty or impurity.

For example, in ancient Rome, the right hand was seen as the “proper” hand for eating, greeting, and conducting business. The left hand was used for bathroom hygiene and considered “unclean.” These Roman taboos influenced later Western culture and religious practices.

Similarly, in many Islamic cultures, the right hand is used for eating, greeting, and other pleasant activities. The left is reserved for bodily hygiene and “impure” tasks. Shaking with the left hand would be considered rude.

These cultural conventions established over centuries still influence handshake etiquette today. Shaking right-handed is seen as proper etiquette, while left-handed shakes may be frowned upon. The cultural coding of the right hand as “good” and left as “bad” persists in subtle ways.

Right-Handedness Dominance

Another key reason most people don’t shake left-handed is that 90% of people worldwide are right-handed. The vast majority find it more natural and comfortable to shake hands using their dominant side.

Being right-hand dominant likely stems from genetics and the way our brains are wired. The left hemisphere of the brain controls the right side of our body and is where speech and language are centered for most people.

Due to the neurological wiring in most individuals, the right hand has greater dexterity and finesse. Most manual tasks feel more fluid and natural when done on the right-hand side.

Shaking hands is no exception. For righties, using the left hand feels clumsy and unnatural. The left arm has to cross over the body in an awkward motion. Right-handed handshakes keep the arm on the same side and feel smooth.

Of course, left-handed people may feel more comfortable shaking with the left. But since lefties make up just 10% of the population, right-handed handshaking dominates by default.

Perceptions of Etiquette and Manners

Using the left hand for handshakes is also often seen as unconventional, informal, or even rude. Shaking left-handed goes against polite etiquette standards in many cultures.

Several perceptions factor into this view:

  • As discussed, the right hand is seen as the “proper” hand for social greetings.
  • The left hand may be seen as “unclean” if customs consider it the bathroom hand.
  • Shaking left-handed could signal indifference, boredom, or disrespect for the greeter.
  • Left-handed shakes may appear “half-hearted” compared to right-handed vigor.

Of course, not everyone interprets a left-handed shake as impolite. But in certain formal, traditional, or cross-cultural situations, it can be seen as a breach of etiquette. Conforming to right-handed shaking norms prevents any unease.

Right-Hand Symbolism Across Cultures

Looking deeper, using the right hand for greetings and oaths traces back to ancient and pervasive symbolism. Let’s explore how various cultures historically codified the importance of the right hand.

Judeo-Christian Tradition

In Jewish and Christian texts and practices, the right hand holds primary significance:

  • The right hand symbolizes strength, protection, and righteousness.
  • Power and honor are at God’s right hand.
  • Oaths were sworn with the right hand on a holy book.
  • In the Bible, sheep (virtuous) are separated from goats (sinful) using the right hand.

This potent right-hand symbolism passed into Christian culture and practice:

  • Christ sits at the “right hand” of God in heaven.
  • Oaths were sworn on the right hand due to its spiritual significance.
  • The priest faced the congregation with right shoulder first to display the cross sewn onto the robe.
  • The clergy gave blessings with the right hand lifted.

Overall, Judeo-Christian tradition cemented the right hand as moral, just, faithful, and blessed. The left hand lacked these upright associations.

Ancient Middle East and Asia

Right-hand symbolism also features prominently in ancient Middle Eastern and Asian cultures:

  • In Mesopotamia, right-handedness was a mark of intellectual power.
  • In ancient Persia, the right hand gave the blessings of Ahura Mazda (the supreme Zoroastrian deity).
  • In Egypt, the pharaoh’s authority and strength came from his right hand.
  • Early Indian practices linked right-handedness to ritual purity and spiritual energy.
  • Right hands in ancient China denoted the Yang (masculine) side, associated with light and goodness.

Across these cultures, the right hand gained divine favor and human authority. The left hand lacked the same virtuous codification.

Ancient Greeks and Romans

The privileged status of the right hand was also present in ancient Greco-Roman culture:

  • The Greek word for “right” (dexios) meant both right-handed and auspicious or skillful.
  • The Roman goddess Fides (faithfulness) held rods in her right hand to signify oath pledges.
  • Roman nose-blowing and bathroom cleaning rituals mandated the left hand to avoid tainting the right.
  • Marriage rings were worn on the fourth finger of the left hand due to its association with the heart and preference for the right hand.

Together, these examples show how Greco-Roman practice also venerated the right hand as honorable, dexterous, faithful, and pure.

Practical Factors Supporting Right-Handed Handshakes

Beyond cultural symbolism, some practical factors also help explain right-hand handshake dominance:

Keeps Greetings Heart-Side

When shaking right-handed, greeters stand heart-to-heart. This keeps the handshake physically and emotionally warm.

In contrast, left-handed shaking places the hearts far apart and may feel detached or insincere. The cross-body motion also appears awkward.

Allows Better Eye Contact

With right-handed shaking, it’s easy to look the greeter in the eyes. Both parties squarely face each other.

Left-handed shaking requires contorted neck positions to make eye contact. This diminishes the intimacy and sincerity of the greeting.

Enables Two-Hand Grasps

Shaking right-handed leaves the left hand free to add a second grasp on top of the handshake for an extra warm welcome.

Trying this two-handed grip while shaking left-handed gets extremely clumsy and uncomfortable.

Keeps the Right Hand Free

As most people are right-handed, shaking the same way keeps the dominant hand free for other uses, like:

  • Writing
  • Eating
  • Gesturing
  • Holding items like bags or umbrellas

Freeing up the dexterous right hand adds convenience after the shake.

When is Left-Handed Shaking Acceptable?

While less common overall, are there situations where shaking left-handed is OK or even preferred?

Here are a few scenarios where left-handed shaking may be socially acceptable:

  • Greeting a Left-Handed Person: When greeting another leftie, both parties may opt for a left-handed shake out of joint comfort.
  • Injury or Disability: If the right hand is injured/disabled, shaking left-handed becomes necessary.
  • Very Tight Quarters: If standing so close that leading with the right would be awkward, starting left may work better.
  • Carrying Items in Right Hand: If holding something in the dominant hand, shaking left-handed lets you keep your grip.
  • Some Social Circles: Among friends or younger groups where formality matters less, left-handed shaking may seem fun, casual, or show creativity.

Still, in most traditional, formal, and cross-cultural situations, the standard remains shaking right-handed. When in doubt, start with the right.

Should Left-Handed Handshakes Be More Accepted?

Given that 10% of the population is left-handed, should left-handed handshakes gain greater acceptance? Some arguments exist on both sides:

Arguments for Wider Acceptance of Left-Handed Shakes

  • Would make lefties feel more included and equal.
  • Reduces discrimination against the left-handed.
  • Combats outdated historical taboos.
  • Embraces more diversity in greetings.
  • Makes the experience more equitable for the left-handed person.

Reasons to Maintain Right-Handed Norm

  • Difficult to change rigid cultural conventions.
  • Right-handedness will likely persist due to genetics.
  • Practical reasons like freeing the right hand remain.
  • Potential for awkwardness due to unfamiliarity.
  • Scope for accidentally giving offense by breaking etiquette.

There are merits to both perspectives. Ultimately, broader change may happen gradually if cultural perceptions of left-handedness evolve in more egalitarian ways. But for now, shaking right remains the safe choice for most.

Best Practices for Smooth Handshakes

To maximize positive handshake experiences for all:

  • Default to the right hand when in doubt.
  • Mirror the initiator’s dominant hand.
  • Adapt if you notice left-handed preference.
  • Keep the shake heart-side for intimacy.
  • Make eye contact and smile.
  • Moderate grip strength; not too forceful or limp.
  • Limit shake duration to 2-3 seconds.
  • Spread fingers wide and clasp web-to-web.
  • Pump once or twice, no more.
  • Stay centered and poised during the shake.

Mastering these universal best practices will ensure you perform a great handshake and make a stellar first impression regardless of left or right hand.

The Bottom Line

While cultural conventions are gradually shifting, for now most people default to shaking hands using the right hand. This stems from ancient cultural symbolism, practical ease for righties, and perceptions of proper etiquette. Left-handed shaking risks appearing unconventional or rude in some settings. But being mindful and flexible to individual needs makes handshakes welcoming for all. With some adjustments, we can evolve social practices to be more inclusive.

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