Dec 4th, 2017, 07:10 PM

Handshakes of the Year

By Hedvig Werner
President Macron and President on Bastille Day military parade July 14, 2017. Image credit: Flickr/Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
The power of a gesture.
This first appeared in the Winter 2017-18 issue of Peacock Magazine

A photo-op often marks the beginning or the end of an official rendez-vous between political figures who join hands to assure the world of peaceful relations—a sign of cordiality between nations. It may seem like a handshake is a rather simple act, but there are implications if performed incorrectly considering the power hierarchies or cultural peculiarities at work. 


Image credit: Sophia Foerster

The Shake-Off  

The first prize for the most talked about handshake of 2017 goes to President Emmanuel Macron and President Donald Trump. At their very first meeting on May 25 in Brussels, ahead of a NATO summit, they engaged in an unusually resolute handshake in which Macron barely let go of Trump’s hand; at least, not without a proper fight. An encounter made up of straight faces, clenched jaws, incredibly firm grips, and protruding white knuckles was an obvious power play by Macron, as he later revealed in an interview with Journal du Dimanche, “My handshake with him—it wasn’t innocent.” Jayson Harsin, Professor of Political Communication at The American University of Paris, notes, “Trump wants to perform [with] strength and domination, as he understands those ideas and signs. Macron’s shake was strategic for French and American audiences.” A caveman rhetoric signaling a “man against man” situation, this handshake made it clear that in Macron, Trump has met his match. 


Image credit: Sophia Foerster

The Snub 

As a splendid Monday in May 2017 came to a close, President Trump, who happened to be on an official state visit to Israel, stood up excitedly from his chair. Trump had most likely requested his usual lunch of two quarter pounders, one large fries and a diet coke (everything in moderation), so when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was awaiting the President’s handshake, Trump’s mind was already parked right at the McDonald’s Drive Through. The Egg McMuffins that he presumably consumed for breakfast had not satiated the bloated belly of President Cheeto, so Secret Service was doubtless sent out on a quest to locate the nearest burger. Netanyahu, who had just stood up to prepare for the photo op, had his eyes fixed on the corpulent man’s tiny hands. However, after catching on to Trump’s daydream, he sneakily pretended to tenderly stroke Trump’s plump arm instead. But, a sudden change in courage took place when Netanyahu suddenly uttered, “No handshake?” Trump nonchalantly turned around when notified of the gaffe by his peers, so Netanyahu finally received what had long been at the top of his wish list: a handshake.   


Image credit: Sophia Foerster

The 88-Year Greeting  

During his historic visit to Cuba in 2016, the sorely missed commander-in-chief Obama anticipated a regular procedural handshake. Following a press conference, Obama tried his luck at shaking hands with Raúl Castro, but the Cuban leader wasn’t comfortable with that idea. With stark eyes perusing the audience and a firm handling of Obama’s slim but somewhat protruding right bicep, Castro stopped the welcoming, outstretched hand of Obama from reaching his. Instead, he hoisted Obama’s arm like a flagpole and let his hand dangle flaccidly. At first glance, this might simply look like a victory symbol for the rekindled relation between the two nations, but an alternative analysis could suggest that Castro is, in fact, a germophobe, and he had some concern in regards to Obama’s bathroom habits. Seeing as Obama is accustomed to Republicans in the Senate regularly testing his patience in similarly ridiculous ways, he didn’t throw in the towel. He grabbed hold of Castro’s wrist, in the hope of finally locking hands, but Castro made sure to clasp his hand so that his palm never truly met that of Obama’s.  


Image credit: Sophia Foerster

The Pinch  

On a state visit to China in August 2015, Zimbabwean then-President Robert Mugabe entered the press hall at a snail’s pace and slowly directed himself toward Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang. After what felt like an eternity, they shook hands. However, Li chose to grasp the dictator’s hand in a fashion similar to a claw crane seizing a teddy bear. What should have been a shake ended up more like a light pinch. A respectful gesture from the dictator, due to, according to Harsin, “the power relations in the context, where news reports said China was one of Mugabe’s last possible allies. China was in the position of power,” therefore possibly justifying a more subdued handshake. Additionally, in Introducing Language and Intercultural Communication, professor of applied linguistics Jane Jackson writes, “In some Asian countries, handshakes tend to be less firm than in North America and Northern Europe,” which could also explain this unusual meeting of hands.