The handshake is an artifact of the ancient past, when our ancestors met they used it to show they were not concealing weapons. During the roman-era they gripped each other’s forearms to check for hidden daggers.
Today, mastering the art of the handshake is an important part of some social situations and failure brings awkwardness. Finding the right balance between a vice-like grip and mushy, soggy, hand-holding can be make or break at a job interview or a first meeting with the in-laws.
Nowhere are handshakes and body language more heavily symbolic or deeply scrutinized than in the realm of political diplomacy. Who has the upper-hand and who has shown their hand is often, quite literally, visible in the way world leaders greet one another. Over the last week Donald Trump dominated Japanese Prime Minister Abe with an excruciatingly long and violent handshake, which left Abe noticeably shaken . A few days later Trump was out-classed by Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, who some believe was wise to the Trump tug-around and prepared himself accordingly.
This is priceless. Trump goes in for the signature jackass handshake but Trudeau is all “no, I am the alpha here.” pic.twitter.com/PjJQi1T4nI— HawaiiDelilah (@HawaiiDelilah) February 13, 2017
A lot happened during the 19-second handshake between Donald Trump and Japan’s Shinzō Abe. pic.twitter.com/kIlLB3Izy8— Quartz (@qz) February 10, 2017
Who releases the grip first; shoulder-pats and forearm grabs; who enters a building first, and who is positioned on the coveted “power” position to the left of a photo, do not apparently, go unnoticed.
Bill Clinton had his signature, warm- two-hander, with the occasional fore-arm grab; George W. Bush allegedly used the twisting-grip, “masonic- handshake” on occasion and – as with Tony Blair in 2003 – he often put his hand on the small of the receiver’s back to manipulate their movements; Putin sometimes leaves his interlocutors hanging quite cruelly, and often manages to somehow, illusively-dominate even his most physically-imposing counterparts, like Turkish President Erdogan.
But it is difficult to think of a precedent for Donald Trump’s handshake. He himself might describe it as “unpresidented”. What had been quite a subtle indication of complex power-plays and the subconscious has become clumsy, hand-yanking which amounts to the diplomatic equivalent of a wedgie.
Since the beginning of Trump’s campaign a series of horrible handshakes have not gone unmocked on social media. We’ve prepared a clip starting off with some more classic handshakes before launching into the most cringe-worthy Trump meetings and greetings.
I wonder what Gorsuch thinks about Trump's views on checks and balances? (Oh, wait… that handshake https://t.co/xadYgEwZDJ)— Heard FC (@HeardFC) February 4, 2017
Trump's “dominance” handshake with Tillerson looks like a sex act. pic.twitter.com/JG9XrITqKs— Manish Vij (@manish_vij) February 4, 2017
Trump just bullied this guy through a handshake. Aggressive! Jesus Mary & Joseph,
realDonaldTrump</a> is getting so fat! He's almost obese. <a href="https://t.co/9bKF0GOaf2">https://t.co/9bKF0GOaf2</a></p>— Livin_2point0 (livin_2point0) February 4, 2017
You will notice that when either party feels they have not “won” the hand-shake, they often try to pat their opponent on the back or place a hand on their shoulder. In behavioral psychology, this is said to be a show of dominance when used outside the context of an intimate friendship.
Similarly, in a “double-hand grip”, how far up the arm someone allows themselves to be grasped is said to show their level of submission. So grasping the forearm is less aggressive in body language than grasping the shoulder which gives the message “I control you”.
For Trump, being so blatantly domineering and aggressive in his gestures does not necessarily have the intended effect. As is the case in Trump’s handshake with Japanese PM Shinzō Abe, the viewer tends to side with the victim in an unwarranted and overtly aggressive act.