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The little differences: 1. To shake or not to shake

When people with German as mother tongue meet, they almost always shake hands. Native English speakers, on the other hand, tend to hold back – with this article The Basel Journal starts a series on the small cultural differences observed between Basel locals and people who have moved here from the Anglophone world.

By Martin Pütter

There is a saying in the British Isles: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” That is easier said than done. You would like to know how the locals tick in the area you have moved to? Here in Basel that can be a tough job (ok, elsewhere too). First it takes a while to find out what they do differently, and then it might take some more time getting used to how they do things differently.

Take something like shaking hands, for example – a small ritual of greeting, or farewell, or for other purposes. Expats who have moved to Basel are often either amused or bemused how locals want to shake hands whenever they meet them, even on repeated encounters. I remember what my fishing buddy Alan once said to me when I was living in the UK: “Germans and Swiss always want to shake hands when you meet them – Brits do it only once, the first time they meet.”

As the fish were rather reluctant to be caught that particular day, we got into a discussion about the origins of the handshake, and about differences between countries when it comes to shaking hands. Alan said that it was to show that you met with peaceful intentions: “An empty hand shows that you are unarmed.” Researching for this series on cultural differences, I found confirmation of what Alan had said. It is even said in the New Testament (Epistle to the Galatians) that the Apostle Paul, when leaving Jerusalem, was given a handshake.

My research also showed that Brits are not alone among English-speaking nations when it comes to shaking hands. On Wisc-online, the website of Wisconsin Technical College Systems (WTCS), it says: “People in the rest of the world shake hands more often than do people in the United States.”

True, some expats adapt quickly. For example, if they meet their buddies, fellow expats, in the pub, they do not shake hands; however, if a local, and regular of the pub, joins them, they shake hands with him. (What happens when a local woman joins the group of expats is the topic of another article in this series.).

Now, the reason behind the difference (still) eluded me. Only Alan came up with a possible explanation: “Maybe us Brits are more trusting. We shake hands once and even when we meet again still trust that you are without weapons. Maybe you in Europe need to make sure about that every time you meet,” he said.

One Response to “The little differences: 1. To shake or not to shake”

  1. Andi Curran says:

    I’ve been living here in the Basel region for almost 14 years and have adopted this local hand-shaking ritual, perhaps because I married into a Swiss family. In September I’m going to meet some old school mates who I haven’t seen in almost 20 years and I hope I remember NOT to shake their hands!

    However, I’m still not used to ‘clinking’ glasses at every round of pints. A simple ‘cheers’ will do.

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