Cross-Cultural Handshake

If shaking hands isn't a culture-specific habit, it sure seems like it ought to be. So Science Fiction authors who are trying to be clever will come up with some other gesture for alien cultures to use for the same purpose.

The trouble is, shaking hands probably developed to its present form because it's a darned convenient thing for our human bodies to do. Obviously, other species have other ways of greeting each other, but the Media Watchdog would never let you show humanoids sniffing others genitalia. There are cultural differences in the way various groups go about the whole handshaking thing, but these are fairly subtle and the TV audience might not notice.

As a result, it seems like a lot of aliens shake hands by grasping each other's forearms, which is actually an old earth method of shaking hands, by showing that you have no weapons in your sleeves, as a display of trust.

Compare Crazy Cultural Comparison. Misjudging this can lead to Greeting Gesture Confusion.


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    Film — Live-Action 
  • In Demolition Man, handshaking has evolved into a curious formal wave due to an increasing aversion to physical contact. When Spartan greets a fellow officer by grabbing his hand, the officer is visibly shocked by the intimacy.
  • The aliens from Scary Movie 3 greet each other by getting the person they're greeting in a choke hold. They say goodbye with a Groin Attack.
  • Parodied, like most things, in Airplane! when Ted Stryker, upon meeting the African tribesmen he and Elaine would be working with for their time in the Peace Corps, teaches them how to shake hands. And then the chief raises both his hands to address his tribe and Ted double high fives him, only to get promptly punched in the face.

  • Defied in Rihannsu: My Enemy, My Ally. Jim Kirk tries to shake Ael t'Rllaillieu's hand upon first meeting her but she informs him that among the Romulans, holding hands is considered a public display of affection akin to a Big Damn Kiss. Given a Call Back in The Empty Chair when before parting for the last time, Jim and Ael first hold hands, then kiss.
  • The Humanx Commonwealth series by Alan Dean Foster:
    • The Ickiest Handshake trophy surely belongs to the Sakuntala from Drowning World. These monkey-like aliens have extremely long tongues like an anteater's and respectfully greet each other by wrapping their tongues around one another's faces. Furthermore while they understand that humans aren't physically equipped to do that, most are offended if a human won't at least touch tongue-tips with them.
    • An un-squicky variant from the same Verse would be the Tran practice of breathing in each other's faces, to share precious warmth on their inhospitable ice world.
  • In The Conquerors Trilogy, the aliens have poisonous tongues (which are also capable of being used as slicing weapons). They greet each other by cutting up a fruit with their tongues which neutralizes their poison. Damn intimidating the first time a human prisoner sees them do this. Worse, the human was expected to follow suit... or at least do his best. Interestingly, when the human showed he was plainly unable to do it, the alien captor much preferred his honesty to another species which tried to mimic the tongue-slice, even though said species couldn't do it either.
  • In Snow Crash the customary greeting in the Metaverse is bowing, not shaking hands; the Metaverse is a visual-only virtual reality so actually touching another avatar is impossible.
  • Not actually done in X-Wing: Starfighters of Adumar, but discussed:
    Janson: I am so glad the people on this world like to wave and shake hands.
    Wedge: Why?
    Janson: Well, what if their usual greeting for visiting dignitaries was to throw paint?
    Wedge: Good point.
  • In The Lost Fleet Beyond the Frontier, the 'spider-wolves' have a form of greeting that's basically a hug. To the relief of the humans working with them, they find us just as physically unpleasant as we find them, and after the first formal meeting they get into the habit of greeting humans with 'air hugs' involving no physical contact.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Star Trek
    • Vulcans have their own distinctive salute which is used in lieu of a handshake (palm out, index and ring fingers separated, which Leonard Nimoy adapted from a Jewish gesture of blessing). Some Fanon suggests that, as Vulcans are touch-telepaths, shaking hands would seem excessively intimate to them. While Star Trek: Enterprise makes this interpretation unlikely, it has some support in the fact that a second form of greeting, involving the touching of the fingertips, is occasionally seen only between family members.
    • A couple of other quick Star Trek examples: Cardassians have been shown to press their palms together to say goodbye to each other, but it only showed up a couple of times. Bajorans didn't have a weird handshake, but they did have a weird clap: they (and several other races, including the Wadi) applauded with the back of one hand to the other palm instead of palms together.
    • Bajoran vedeks have a habit of randomly walking up to a Bajoran and grasp their left ear (the right ear is covered by an elaborate earring) to feel their pagh. In one EU novel, Ro Laren reveals that this is the reason she wears her earring on the left ear - she hates it when they do that.
    • Cardassians also had a weird clap; in one scene with Bajorans and Cardassians attending a speech by Gul Dukat, the Bajorans gave the clap mentioned above (as usual), while the Cardassians drummed their hands on the table.
    • Klingons occasionally do the forearm-shake.
  • Babylon 5:
    • The Centauri do a double forearm-shake. Which like a lot of their culture, is similar to late Roman tradition.
    • The Narn occasionally do a similar gesture though with just one hand; there is also their closed fists to chest gesture, which seems to be more formal. Sometimes the Narns also roll their fists around each other before making that gesture though this mostly seems to occur during the first season; possibly it was deemed looking slightly silly.
  • The Jaffa and Tok'ra of Stargate SG-1 both do the forearm shake.
  • Andromeda:
    • Civilized peoples do the forearm shake.
    • Nietzscheans hold their forearms together to form a double-helix. Curiously, this leaves their other hand out of sight of the other guy, making it easy to pull a weapon. Given their survivalist nature, this makes perfect sense.
  • Parodied in Red Dwarf; Kryten and the GELF leader present their hands as if to shake hands but instead reach past each other's hands and grab the other's ankles and then bounce up and down on their other legs.
  • Ultronians in My Hero shake elbows while reciting "Sneet snader sneet"...
  • ...which is no less ridiculous than Mork's "Na-Nu Na-Nu" and hand gesture from Mork and Mindy

    Newspaper Comics 
  • Parodied in one Dilbert strip where Ratbert attempts to infiltrate a gang of elves who have been terrorizing Dilbert. They ask for the secret handshake and he performs a ridiculous pose with his arms waving and his head sticking out from between his legs. One elf replies that he's wrong but it's "one heckuva good guess".

    Tabletop Games 
  • In Paranoia, all secret society groups have handshakes or handshake equivalents. The fun part is that most of these handshakes start off in a very similar manner...

    Web Original 
  • Homestar Runner
    • The series once showed Homestar and the King of Town demonstrate a secret handshake. Neither of them have arms.
    • Later Strong Bad and The Cheat do it and theirs is similarly devoid of armic activity.

    Western Animation 

    Real Life 
  • An Earth-based example: it's most common to shake hands with the right hand in Western culture. The Scout Association shakes with the left hand. This tradition originated with the Scouts in Africa where Baden-Powell observed tribesmen shaking with the left hand being a gesture of trust; the shield being carried in the left hand, you had to put your shield down, indicating your trust for the other guy, in order to greet him. Which turns out to be a really bad idea, generally speaking, as many cultures have a taboo about using the left hand for such things. Often due to the left hand being associated with being "unclean" (as generally the one used to clean oneself after defecating...)
  • Real Life example: the Maori hongi, a greeting-gesture in which people touch noses, thus sharing the breath of life. Though if it's between women, it often turns into a mutual kiss on the cheek.
  • The Hollywood meme where American Indians always use the upraised forearm greeting instead of a handshake (and an inevitable "How!" as the standin for "Hello") does in fact have some basis in fact. Several Eastern tribes used something similar (generally without the crossed arm addition) as a gesture, though the greeting was language appropriate ("How!" being a completely made-up Hollywoodism). Many other N.A. Indians used some variation of mutual forearm grip, though.