Greetings are a minefield

Lauren Booth
5 min readNov 16, 2020

For some people they can mean exile

Strong handshake or social power play?

Let me begin with a disclaimer. I don’t shake hands with men. I prefer not to put my palm into theirs, simple as that. I didn’t like the feeling or the awkward situations this innocent-seeming, socially-loaded, gesture brought me before I accepted Islam as my faith. And I was very grateful to find that being Muslim gave me an opt out clause. Or rather, I thought it had.

The Power Clinch

In my celebrity hay-day, many men, perhaps threatened by my six foot frame (6'2" in heels), felt it necessary to roll my knuckles during their power shake, when we were introduced. Trump’s aggressive handshake technique is nothing new. He has just taken it onto the world stage. Openly using them as a way to try and exert dominance and authority over the other person involved is tacky but largely accepted.

Who can forget the video of Trump yanking the arm of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo or almost toppling his supposed ally, Mike Pence.

Big fists clamped over my soft hand, those greeting predators would crunch my finger joints, all the while smiling — directly at my bosom.
I would call out their micro-aggression, though.

‘Wow! That really hurts, congratulations. You must be quite a guy back home.’

In 2005, as much as I disliked male handshakes, almost as much as the weird snogathon, New Years Eve, I found myself demanding some men MUST shake my hand.

It all began as my work, and then activism, took me into Palestine, Jordan, Iran and other Muslim majority lands.

The women I met in high powered positions there would shake hands gently with me — a relief! Sometimes one would surprise me with ‘Can I give you a hug?’ I never said no. The men meanwhile, greeted me with smiles, their hands to their chest. Not good enough! Was I not their equal?

As a western, female, journalist, I began to take a dark delight in getting regional politicians and journalists, to shake my hand. On introduction I’d shove my hand towards the middle button of their suit jacket. Their hand would shoot forward to meet mine. I guessed either out of instinctive politeness or to stop something more embarrassing from happening. Namely my hand touching their waist. Haram!

Right Way Is The White Way

At the time, I told myself I did this to teach them something about equality. These charming yet backwards people who thought it okay to have a social system not precisely similar to my own. I was, subliminally, trying to teach these alien men the ‘right way’ to behave by forcing my notions of social correctness into their reality. At the same time, I never bothered to ask local women if they wanted to shake hands with men.

Why? That answer was hard-wired into my psyche in Germaine Greer’s voice.

‘Those poor dears are brainwashed into taking second place in society - so why ask them what they prefer? It’s irrelevant.’

My habits were superior, always more ‘correct’ than locals that I met. I took my habits abroad and forced them onto others with an unacknowledged European sense of being born with the right to educate ‘natives’.

Cultural assimilation of Native Americans

I remember the precise moment I decided to stop. It was August 2008, I had arrived in Gaza on a boat mission to draw attention to the Israeli siege of the 1.8m civilians living there. My colleagues and I were hosted at the Al Diera Hotel, on Gaza’s battered coastline.

Having been introduced to (yet another) bearded, clearly religious person, I enthusiastically forced a handshake from him. His manners, based on his faith, related to the host/guest dynamic, made it very awkward for him to refuse my palm.

God or me? What a choice!

On my way out the door, something made me turn back. The academic was exactly where I’d left him. His shoulders just a little slumped. He stood there a moment. A bit sad. Like he’d failed at something invisible, which I couldn’t, or rather didn’t care to, comprehend.

This pose is preference not disrespect

Meanwhile, last month, in Germany, a man passed the naturalization test to become a citizen there. At the ceremony, he preferred not to shake hands with the female official. A German court subsequently ruled that the 40-year-old Lebanese doctor, resident in Germany for 18 years, be denied citizenship.
The Administrative Court of Baden-Württemberg (VGH) ruled that:

Someone who rejects a handshake for religious reasons has a “fundamentalist conception of culture and values” thereby rejecting “integration into German living conditions.”

The ruling was handed down despite health officials cautioning against handshaking during the C19 pandemic.

Greetings are a big deal

Greetings are small gestures, which can carry a lot of social clout. It’s all about the contract of offer and rejection. To violate social norms, is to risk a greater rejection and if yo are Muslim de-patriation. Andy Molinsky, author of Global Dexterity: How to Adapt Your Behavior Across Cultures without Losing Yourself in the Process calls this a “micro-refusal,” which can be both uncomfortable and risky.

In Europe, Australia, America and Canada we have a number of alternative distanced greetings we now use.

Elbow bumping, fake-fiving, waving at a distance — acceptable. Nodding your head, hand to heart for your faith — not.

Yes, I know it’s supposedly because we single out a gender to treat differently. But frankly from this side of the elbow, much like the France niqab fiasco (one face cover good, another illegal) it boils down to patent prejudice.

Today, I live on the other side of the forced handshake. I could pin a grin to my face, and reframe the situation as a Covid moment, as men come at me, ready to once again break my fingers. Deliberately choosing to ignore my discomfort or my personal choice.
“I guess we’re not supposed to shake hands now.”
But, I like a more honest response. One in line with teachings on social etiquette that come from a place of respect and dignity.
I place my right hand on my chest (as if pledging allegiance to kindness). Then I say to you:
‘I greet you with my heart.’
Feel free to surprise the next Muslim you meet by trying this. The smile of gratitude you receive will make it a new habit.

And you could always blame Covid if the Muslim offers you their hand.

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Lauren Booth

Author of ‘In Search of A Holy Land’ (2021). Writer and performer of the acclaimed one-woman show ‘Accidentally Muslim.’