Ella Al-Shamahi on the power of shaking hands and Princess Diana's iconic touch

Virgin Radio

24 Mar 2021, 10:28

Paleoanthropologist and writer Ella Al-Shamahi joined the Chris Evans Breakfast Show with Sky to talk about her new book on the history of handshaking, Princess Diana's monumental gesture and everything from the forgotten penis shake greeting to the bum salutation.

She told Chris: "I was supposed to be on expeditions and I couldn't anymore and everyone was driving me nuts about this handshake business.

"There was a lot of, Oh, this is it, we're never going to shake hands again, we're never going to hug anyone again, and I just thought, What a load of catastrophizing, you're scaring the hell out of people, please don't do that.

"So I thought I'd write a book on the handshake because everything that I was reading was completely factually incorrect."

So when did it first start? She explained: "Seven million years ago when our common ancestor existed they also shook hands so it's really cool to think this thing that we've always thought of as just being a cultural thing is actually deeply embedded in our DNA. It's here to stay. I love it.

"It's quite incredible. It can reduce your heart rate. Touch generally is useful like that, but it's chemo signals that have been driving me mad so chemo signals or chemical signals - and a lot of people don't realise this - but we actually communicate with each other via chemical signals. 

"I know most of us think it's just spoken word and a few gestures but they did this experiment where they put gauze under people's armpits and they got them to watch scary films or happy films.

"They took that gauze to a different bunch of people and they accurately reflected that emotion in their faces. There was one experiment where they said to point to the gauze that smells like happiness and people were getting it right.

"It's really weird we communicate with each other chemically and people have shown that we transfer those chemical signals via handshakes and we're more likely to sniff our hands after we shake hands, unconsciously. It’s gross but wonderful.”

On the best handshake of all time? She said of the Princess Diana HIV patient handshake: “I think that's a solid handshake as far as handshakes go because that was completely revolutionary.

"Everyone was terrified of HIV back then and it was one of those things where everybody was afraid to touch anybody and suddenly Princess Diana was shaking hands without gloves on. It was just astounding and one of most incredible handshakes of all time."

On the handshake making a welcome return, she said: "I looked into it and it's absolutely incredible because in every single case in recorded history of a pandemic or an epidemic, stopping the handshake, it always came back."

What are her alternative hand-shaking favourites? She said: “I would say the jazz hands is probably up there. It’s just joyful. At this point everything is so miserable so just go for it!

“You've got to remember there's so many fascinating global greeting behaviours and the handshake is just one of the. One of my favourites is the Liberian finger snap where at the end of the handshake you snap your fingers, the louder the snap the better. 

“There are some really funky extinct ones now so in the last 100 years we've lost the penis shake, we've lost the bum salutation, the urine wash… it’s deeply upsetting. It was so much fun writing though, let me tell you, if my book was just chemo signals and penis shakes I would have been happy.”  

The Handshake: A Gripping History is out tomorrow.