The lost art of exchanging greetings

The handshake was originally meant to make sure that the person you were greeting was peaceful and wasn’t carrying concealed weapons

It’s an open secret that US President Donald Trump doesn’t seem to know how to shake people’s hands.

For a while, the pompous billionaire has been yanking and twisting people’s arms, all in the name of greeting them.

More recently, he violently held, repeatedly patted and jerked around Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s hand during the latter’s visit to the White House.

The uncomfortably long and weird handshake got social media users, including Kenyans, talking and poking fun.

But wait a minute, do Kenyans really know how to neatly shake hands? Are our ways of exchanging greetings the best, or other cultures deem them weird?

Well, as a formal expression of goodwill the world over, people greet each other. Different cultures have different ways of expressing how they feel about each other, depending on the age, class, religion, among other factors.

There are those who shake hands, kiss, peck, hug or even touch each other’s face. However, save for a few cultures, especially around the Caribbean and the Mediterranean where a hug or an air kiss are preferred, the most common and universal form of greeting around the world is the handshake.

For the uninitiated, the handshake was originally meant to make sure that the person you were greeting was peaceful and wasn’t carrying concealed weapons.

What’s more, the hand clasp was necessary as proof that one’s hand was empty and the shaking was meant to dislodge any weapons hidden up the sleeves.

So revered are greetings that in some cultures they are more of an art. So much razzmatazz, noise and vigour goes into it, you can’t fail to notice and even marvel at the oddity as a passerby.

Take, for instance, when two Kenyan villagers meet. Unlike in urban areas where greetings are brief and characterised with impatience, for rural folks, this is a huge ‘press conference’ of sorts, where breaking news is delivered, weather discussed and a bit of gossip and smiles exchanged.

In some cases, it could be total strangers, but they will spend close to ten or so minutes, exchanging greetings. Vigorous handshakes would follow while keeping eye contact. Rapturous laughter thrown in for special effect, as they call for peace and introduce each other.

Violent salams

Once they were done exchanging niceties, they would then delve into discussing the weather, latest gossip and compare prices of basic commodities.

In the case of men, the state of livestock, local politics and other current affairs would take centre stage.

In some cases, it’s after minutes or even hours of ‘exchanging greetings’ that the strangers realise they actually don’t know each other and start making introductions. However, in some odd cases, you would see such strangers dig deeper and force relations.

They would connect dots, trying to force links with each other’s clan. They name drop as much as possible in a bid to find familiar links. After an hour or so, they always discover that they are distant relatives or at least related to one another’s distant relative.

“Oh yeah, my uncle’s aunt married your grandmother’s brother,” one would conclude, as the other approvingly nod like a goat. They then go their separate ways, masquerading as relatives. Those are villagers for you!

In urban areas, especially in Nairobi, people are afraid of germs and bacteria. They insist on bumping each other’s clenched fists in the name of greetings. You wonder how the hell they came up with that sort of violence as an expression of peace, love and unity.

Long-lost best of buddies, with no time for the whole greeting charade, bump into each other on the streets and hurriedly mumble “niaje”, with the other fellow grumpily answering, rather hastily, “fiti” or “poa”. They are so scared and suspicious of each other, they can’t hug or embrace. It’s a scandal.

In offices, it’s a quick “hi”, hurriedly responded to with yet another “hi”, as if going the whole hog of shaking hands, exchanging niceties and asking how the other person has been or is doing would kill them. Others have taken the game a notch higher, they only nod with raised eyebrows as a way of greeting each other. In fact, count yourself lucky to get that in this anti-social city because most people, especially neighbours and colleagues, completely ignore each other. Some, it’s rumoured, is for fear of being drugged.

How greetings, especially the handshake, is made says a lot. Generally, the average Kenyan is terrible at exchanging greetings. Take, for example, those who shake your hand with one of their hands in their pocket or those who almost crush your hand like what Kenya international footballer McDonald Mariga did to a referee who red had carded him during a soccer match in Italy.

The son of the soil made as if to greet the match official as he left the pitch, only to squeeze the hell out of his hand, so hard that it began bleeding. He was, of course, punished with a five-match ban.

Wet hands

Then we have the uncultured types who shake people’s hands with wet hands. Probably just after visiting the loo and are still dripping with water after washing them or courtesy of sweat. It gets even worse when they have to firmly hold on to it, even as you try to withdraw and wiggle it out of their grip.

Some naughty Kenyans wink at each other or at their objects of desire when saying hi. Some cling on to women’s hands, feeling it as they compliment the petroleum jelly they use. Some take the madness a notch higher by trying to gently tickle the palm of those whose hands they are shaking using their index finger.

We also have those invasive types. This one violates personal space and reaches beyond the wrist. Such scoundrels use both hands to cover the other person’s hands as they rub and feel their entire arm, all the way to the biceps and triceps.

You have probably seen those buggers who grab other people’s hands during greetings and go on to playfully slap them, mumbling “umepotelea wapi wewe (where the hell have you been)”.

Bottom line, it’s important to be keen of the predominant greeting culture one is visiting.

Tales have been told of city boys who go hugging their village-bound mothers-in-law, only to be fined for it is considered taboo. Forgetting how important a handshake while maintaining eye contact is, there those men who outstretch their hands to exchange greetings, as their eyes track the chubby posterior of female passers-by.

Madharau handshake

Dishing out weird handshakes like refusing to let go of the other person’s hand is another common mistake. We have individuals who have this annoying ‘you have an arm and I want it’ grab-and-pull handshake that can lead to dislocation of one’s arm.

Like Donald Trump, such types would violently pull you towards their chests and twist your hand, so much so that if you are not well fed, especially in this times when we have biting unga shortage, you can awkwardly ram into them courtesy of inertia.

Last but not least, there are women who are notorious for this delicately annoying handshake, which is either too stiff or weak. The handshake has no character or feelings.

They shake your hand and you don’t feel it because they don’t try, as they are supposed to, fit into your hand. Woe unto you if they are not in their best of moods; they do it with madharau by only using their fingertips!

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