The Hand that Shook – Cultural Differences over Clasped Hands

What happens when cultures collide over the most innocent of things? How would you feel if someone refused your hand for religious reasons? How should I feel and what should I do in future? Your comments and advice are gratefully received.

We have a new family on the street and, as we’re a lovely bunch on our road, we’ve made sure to make them feel welcome, just as we did for our new nextdoor neighbour and our neighbours did for us. It makes me happy to instill in others the love and pride I have and we share for our little road.

We live in Shipley / Frizinghall, and it’s not the most salubrious of locations: the postcode, ward and constituency facts and figures show it’s an area of low income & low education and high-ish unemployment & high-ish crime, but it is, by no means, an awful place to live. Our road, though, is an oasis, as everyone comments when they come to visit or move on to the road. Despite living near three busy roads, our houses are sheltered from the hustle, bustle and noise that others just around the corner cannot escape, and our well-kept yards and cultivated gardens are a source of escape and pride. Another thing that’s at odds with those on other streets around us is that our new neighbours are only the second British-Asian family on the street.

I’ve seen the man of the house many times as he’s been carefully and diligently renovating the house, making it habitable for his young family, and I’ve often stopped to say hello and have a chat, as have many of my neighbours; indeed, he commented, tongue in cheek, the other day that he reckoned they’d have moved in a couple of months earlier if we hadn’t been so friendly. Wearing jeans and a t-shirt, his Bradford accent, pride for the area, and pedigree of living in houses within about three miles of here all his life showed that he’s a Bratfud lad, just like me.

His two daughters have been rushing up and down the street all summer, getting to know the other kids round here and loving that they can now ride and run and play without the worry or inconvenience of traffic. At first, they were scared of our dog, Jess. Jess is a Staffordshire bullterrier, so is victim of bad press – no-one seems to remember that they are nicknamed ‘the nanny dog’ for very, very good reason and love children (though she couldn’t eat a whole one –haha. Erm, actually, she could). So, patiently and over weeks, I spoke to them about Jess and they’ve moved on from fear, to saying hello, to patting her through the gate, to giving her treats. Now, they call for her to see if she’s playing out – I kid you not! – and we’ll hear them shouting for her by name whilst they have no idea what
we’re called.

OK – I suppose you know why I’ve told you all this. What these anecdotes show is that I am not racist; I welcome people on to our road no matter what their colour or creed; I treat all the kids, all the adults, all the people on our road the same. I’ve done it jovially, to  show I’m a nice guy, and I’ve demonstrated that I havebeen nothing less than a good neighbour. Now we all know this, can I tell you about something that happened the other day?

The new guy (I’m purposefully not using his name and consciously not giving him a moniker) was in the street looking at his garden. It’s overgrown because whilst he’s been working on the house, they’ve been living elsewhere and, of course, the house came first. Now they’re in, they’re looking at what to do with the garden. I went up to see how they were getting on and he said he didn’t know what to do with the jungle he was staring at. I told him what the previous owner did, to give him an idea of what he could do, and offered  to give him a bit of a tour of ourgarden, to give him ideas. He beamed! He beamed just as I had when a neighbour had done the same for us. He said, “My wife would love to grow some veg,” and, at that minute, out came his wife from the yard. I shoved my hand in her direction and grinned, “Hi, we’ve not met. I’m John,” as I stepped towards her. That’s when something odd happened:

I’m not sure she recoiled, but in my memory, maybe she did. She stepped back – is that recoiling? The guy jumped in and explained that, “My wife can’t shake your hand. It’s a religious thing.” He insisted I shook his hand to show we were friends and that it was not intended to cause offense, but a religious observance. I said I had no problem with it (I’m not sure that I was truthful; I was certainly confused) and we walked up and into my garden. The bloke and I chatted about veg and plants and weeds and greenhouses; his wife followed at a distance, and anything I said that might be of immediate interest to her, he raised his voce to repeat. She never spoke. She never spoke to me. She left after a bit of a wander without thanks or even acknowledgement.

Me and the guy carried on chatting for ages – about half an hour. I told them what we’d done with garden, how we’d planned it and why we’d done this and chosen not to do that. After a while, his daughters and nephews, after the girls had introduced the boy to Jess, wandered up and I showed them how to select and pick the best, ripest apples, which they ate straight from the tree (they are not observing Ramadan yet). When I could, I asked the bloke about his wife’s not shaking my hand, and wondered if it was just during the holy month, but no. He again reassured me that it was not me, was not intended to cause offence, was not personal, but ‘a religious thing’. He said that his wife would happily talk to Sharon, but not me. He seemed to want to close that part of the conversation and I felt it rude to press, but I had questions.

Anyway, we carried on talking about veg and, at that point, Sharon came out with a bag of apples, potatoes and courgettes from the garden. He beamed again. With Sharon, we talked of recipes and what to do with each, and told him that, anytime, he could take rosemary from our bush to roast with the potatoes, and told him, simply, see what you buy and try growing that. He grinned when we told him of our success growing coriander – “Great! If it’s not got coriander in it, it’s not a proper meal,” he said. We said our first or
second goodbyes (very British – why must we say goodbye 3 or 4 times before leaving) with an apology – “I’m so sorry. We’re talking about food and you must be starving!” He said it was no problem, and then I asked about how he was finding fasting in the summer. He told me of 4am feasts before getting back to bed with a full stomach, but of the joy of breaking the fast in the evening. So, two or three goodbyes later, and an offer to wander round the garden or inspect the herb patch any time, off he went.

So, I’ll get to the main reason for this, and I could’ve been quicker at getting to this point, but then you wouldn’t know what a good non-racist neighbour I am, and might have thought this was just to an Ooh, aren’t they weird?  post which accompanies any and every article on the T&A website which mentions race. I hope it doesn’t come across like that!

How should I feel about the lady of the house refusing to shake my hand or speak to me?

Of course, I had an immediate reaction – I think I panicked and worried that I’d done something wrong; should I not have offered my hand in friendship? I also had later thoughts as I mulled it over. Is it wrong that she reacted like that? Whose ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ had been transgressed? Why can’t she speak to me? Is it because I’m not a Muslim? Does she see me as less than her? Is it because I’m a man? Does she see me as a threat? Does she see me as less than her or her as less than me? I think the main thing is, I was offended by her reaction and our cultures clashed. There is little that a civilized westerner can do that is worse than refusing an offered hand – think of how many times you’ve seen it on TV and in film, and how it jars, and how the would-be-shaker and refuser react, and how it sets up an entirely unequal relationship which is filled with animosity and screams These two are about to fight. The ‘hand of friendship’ is entwined in our language as a metaphor, based on the literal act of making welcome and introduction. To refuse it is, well, wrong. It’s rude. Refusing a handshake is designed to hurt. I know this because I’ve seen it so many times and I’ve been brought up to know that.

I know that her refusal was not intended to cause offence; I know that it is her religion and her culture which forbade her from shaking my hand. However, my culture says that we are equals and we cannot treat each other differently just because we are of different genders or religions or colurs; and my culture says it’s rude to refuse an offered hand.

So, what I’m saying is, how should I feel about this? I know some things. I know that I want to be friendly with them, but also that I don’t want to friendly with someone who thinks that I am less than them because of religion or more than them because of gender or inherently different to them for pretty much any reason dictated by mere geography or genetics. I know that, had the bloke refused to talk to Sharon or refused her hand, he’d have left my garden quickly and horizontally. I know that I want to understand why she couldn’t shake my hand, but I’m not sure I could agree with any reason for it. I know I’m
confused: I don’t really know what I think, what I should think or what’s ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.

Can you help me?

  • Why did she refuse my hand?
  • Why wouldn’t she talk to me but will talk to Sharon?
  • Is there a hierarchical status thing going on here because of gender or religion, and where am I on it?
  • Am I right to be offended (or feel that my sensibilities have been offended is possibly a better way of putting it)?
  • If I see her in the garden, should I blank her, because that’s her culture, or give a cheery “Hi” because that’s mine?
  • If someone is going to have their cultural rules transgressed here, should it be mine or hers? Why?
  • And, why do the British need to say goodbye so many times?

I’d be grateful for your thoughts here. I’d ask that you be gentle to me because I honestly don’t know.

Thanks Irna – :^)

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About jatkinson1977

I'm in my 30s and married to Sharon, the beautiful woman who keeps me in check. We live in Shipley, just outside Bradford, with our black lab, Nipper. I'm an English teacher in secondary school and, after working as a Teaching & Learning Consultant with the local authority, have returned to the classroom to become a Lead Professional in English at a large comp in Bradford. I'm also trying to become a little more cultured, especially by seeing what culture's right here on my doorstep in Bradford and West Yorkshire (please see my blog, 'Am I Kulchad Yet?'). I've got a third and final blog which is filled with things that, essentially, don't fit into the other two but are interesting enough to share (please see my blog, 'Things That Occur To Me').
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20 Responses to The Hand that Shook – Cultural Differences over Clasped Hands

  1. No need to be offended at all and I am sure that they weren’t. Most devout Muslims will not shake the hands of a member of the opposite sex. Next time just say hello, put your hand across your heart and that will be sufficient and appreciated.

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    • Thank you for your comments. This situation is so difficult because someone’s sensibilities / cultural rules have to be broken – but whose? Why should I not be allowed to offer friendship as I’m used to, and why should she have to go against her cultural teachings on contact between men and women? One of us had to be offended in that situation, so who should it be? I fear, in the end, it was both of us.

      You said in a tweet that Muslim men might not shake my partner’s hand out of respect to me – this would have been a huge cultural gaffe as I would find this so utterly offensive, so thoroughly disrespectful, I would, at best, walk away grimacing. I’m glad this was not the case – but, again, whose culture has to give way? It’s so difficult to not cause offence if this small act can lead to such difficulty.

      Thanks for commenting. I hope that you aren’t the last Muslim (I’m taking a huge leap and assuming you are Muslim) who reads and comments on here. My post asks genuine questions and I thank you for your genuine answers.

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      • Why the obsession over offence being caused? Someone’s true intentions can easily be clear without a shaking of hands having to have to take place. The vast majority of Muslims have more in common with other people than is usually noted and it is only a small minority who do not want to integrate for whatever reason. And also note that Muslims are not one homogenous mass with the same outlook or even religious traditions/laws. My wife’s family will all kiss on the cheek nearly all visitors, male or female, but other guests to the house will not even offer a handshake, preferring to put their hands on their heart which is a sign of sincere respect. I wouldn’t ponder it all so deeply, just enjoy your blossoming relationship with your new neighbours as it seems like it is mutual

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      • Thanks for coming back and filling me in even more.

        I would like to know more, especially why / who says we can’t touch or speak, and if, as it suggests to me as an uninitiated outsider, it represents a hierarchical relationship? However, if I have 1000 comments on here, I’m not sure I’ll get one as sage, erudite and astute as “I wouldn’t ponder it all so deeply, just enjoy your blossoming relationship with your new neighbours”

        Thanks.

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  2. June Russell says:

    Ah, is that why my neighbour – a courteous man who I’ve known and liked for years – was so reluctant to shake my female hand, I wonder? I insisted, in a friendly but firm way, as one does, and so he did shake it, but he clearly wasn’t happy and rushed away. I’ve often thought about it and felt like you – confused, rejected, guilty without knowing why – that’s just how he looked, too.

    Understanding that no offence was intended makes one feel better in retrospect – but it can’t prevent the rush of feeling that’s evoked within the moment, on both sides, by such a bone-deep clash of cultural expectation.

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    • Thank you for commenting.

      I’m glad it’s not just me that’s been in this situation.

      This thing, which I would’ve called silly or small, really surprised me – my reaction surprised me as her reaction surprised me. I wish the guy had explained it to me, and I did ask in the garden. I wanted to show that there were no hard feelings and let him know that, although I didn’t understand the reasons, I really wanted to.

      Anyway, it’s done nothing to harm our budding relationship – he brought me round some biryani for dinner so we must be ok.

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  3. My close friends and I have experienced several variations of this situation from different faith and non-faith perspectives. From my own perspective (as the profoundly agnostic son of a vicar who grew up in Pakistan). I feel that any perceived religious obligation that makes somebody reject a sincerely meant expression of friendship is much closer to human dogma than to divinity.

    The doctrinal segregation of men and women seems to me to be ultimately predicated on two fallacies; firstly that gender and sexuality are inherently sinful; and secondly, that contact between genders is inherently sexual. Both are tosh.

    Even if one grants that there is a Godly reason to shy away from contact between men and women, then the greater Godly priority should surely be the acceptance and celebration of sincere good will. Shaking hands is a ritual that joins people together. Refusing to shake hands is a ritual that keeps people apart. People of faith need to decide for themselves what their God would do.

    Lastly, if faith embraces the toleration of difference (as Islam and the Judeo-Christian religions all claim to do so) then it is encumbent upon the faithful to act in accordance with that principle. Shake the hand once, then explain why, in future, you would rather share some other ritual of friendship. I once made a class A social gaff with a Muslim woman who did exactly that, and who never held it against me. In fact, it actually served to cement our friendship.

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    • Thank you for commenting.

      What a fascinating life you must’ve led.

      I’m really interested in your last point about tolerance. I don’t think I’d considered it really, although it’s a buzz word that is banded about by everyone these days, until I read your comment.

      Tolerance. To tolerate. Intolerable.

      OK – so, did I tolerate her inability / unwillingness to conform to my culture? Did she tolerate me requesting her to break her taboos? What is tolerance? Should we continue to feel uncomfortable with each other’s customs and not change our own?

      Thanks a lot for your thoughts – like all good responses, they answered many questions but forced far more to be asked.

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  4. Steve, while I fully understand your point of view, your reply is typical of those who think that Muslims have to conform to certain things in order to be seen as progressive or even “modern”. You appear to come from a standpoint of respect but your answer is full of words like “tosh”, “fallacies”, and “dogma”. Why can’t people accept that other religions/cultures made have different social norms without them being essentially labelled as backward? Some Muslims may choose to shake hands, others will not. So what? We can all get on fine without it unless of course it is just another thing to smack Muslims over the head with, something we can without in these times of institutionalised islamophobia. I would simpy say “Get Over It”.

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  5. Surely the question under discussion here is, who is being intolerant? The person who extends the hand or the person who refuses to take it?

    You say that my reply is “typical of those who think that Muslims have to conform to certain things in order to be seen as progressive or even “modern”.” I’d go much further: I’d say I think that everybody has to conform to certain things in order to be seen as progressive. Those ‘certain things’ include an acceptance of the fundamental equality of all people, the toleration of difference and a recognition that dogmatic beliefs and practices can be challenged without undermining the validity of, or respect for, faith itself. People don’t have to accept those principles, of course, that’s fine: but I reserve the right to believe that no, those people are not progressive, but reactionary. They can think different; you can think different. It is our right as thinking beings to hold different positions.

    You end your response, “Get over it”. I’d reply, “get over what?” I haven’t suggested that people should be banned from interacting with other people in accordance with their perceptions of their religious obligations. I don’t criticise the practices of any faith from day to day. I haven’t taken a pop at faith itself. I’ve merely offered my opinion that doctrinal segregation (common in one form or another, incidentally, to all major faiths) is dogma and is based upon a philosophical fallacy. I believe it is.

    You seem to be characterising me as somebody who is taking particular issue with Muslims or Islam: “typical of those who think that Muslims have to conform…”, “…just another thing to smack Muslims over the head with, something we can without in these times of institutionalised islamophobia.” You might do me the courtesy of getting to know me a little before making such assumptions. You might be surprised; and It would, after all, be the tolerant thing to do.

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  6. Thank you both for commenting and for getting so animated.

    I think, in a way, you are feeling the same things I did and seeing things, maybe even offences, that aren’t there.

    Tales from Bradistan is perfectly correct in that it’s just a handshake – what’s the problem? Steve is also right by saying that it is a well-intentioned, friendly gesture, and to refuse it is to refuse that friendship. Tales from Bradistan is saying that some people’s interpretations of Islam frown or forbid members of the opposite sex from shaking hands, so she could not shake my hand. Steve is saying that, in Western or British culture, to refuse a handshake is to refuse friendship, so she had to accept my hand.

    I thought my situation oddly and disproportionately difficult and strange – I hope you two won’t fall out and, like me and my new neighbour, won’t find this a reason fall out.

    As for the real questions, I’d like to know why she couldn’t shake my hand. Is it a religious or cultural thing, or her cultural interpretation of a Koranic verse? Does her inability or unwillingness to shake my hand demonstrate a hierarchical relationship? And, most of all, why do we have to say ‘Goodbye’ so many times.

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  7. “Is it a religious or cultural thing, or her cultural interpretation of a Koranic verse?”

    – It’s Hadithic and cultural, not Koranic; hence the fact that it’s not universally adopted and is indeed hotly disputed within Islam.

    I have absolutely no axe to grind with Bradistan – I was writing on her blog just the other day – although I admit to being a bit irritated by her apparent characterisation of me as taking an anti-Islamic stance. My comments were clearly set out as non-specific to any particular faith. As I said subsequently, doctrinal segregation is, or has been, common in one form or another to all major faiths. I personally don’t agree with it, whatever the philosophical, cultural or faith context. I might be less sceptical if pretty much every case of segregated practice across all faiths did not seem to be to the disadvantage of women.

    Those who know me, know also how profoundly agnostic I am – I only refrain from calling myself atheist because I believe that claiming to know that there is no god would be as arrogant as an assertion of the religious that they know He, She or They do exist. I never, however, attack people’s faith; I believe that by-and-large, people end up with the faiths and philosophies they need and that there is no good to be achieved in undermining their belief systems. I do get peeved, however, at the assumption of the faithful that their doctrinal beliefs are of higher priority than my secular ones.

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    • Thanks again, Steve. I’m off to look Hadithic up.

      I agree that, as I see it, treating people differently because of their gender is almost exclusively to the detriment of women, and part of me is uncomfortable with treating her differently if it suggests I am comfortable with women being treated differently to me; as I said above a couple of times, had the man refused to shakes my partner’s hand, I would have found this insulting and intolerable. However, I am an outsider and have not been brought up like this, so maybe I’m wrongly assuming that there is a hierarchical relationship being demonstrated here, and that I am at the top of it – I’d really like someone to confirm or, I hope, dispel this.

      I also thought about the position in your last point – one of our cultures had to give, and I wonder why it had to be mine. I think, part of me wanted someone to write on here a really good reason why she could not shake my hand or talk to me and that hasn’t happened yet. Another question you raise here which I hadn’t properly formed: are religious beliefs superior, more worthy or more important than secular ones? If they are, why?

      Also, despite the picture, I think TfB is a bloke as a wife is mentioned.

      Thank you for commenting – I hope you’ll continue to add your thoughts.

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  8. Ivor Tymchak says:

    What a compelling debate. For years I’ve been fascinated as to how religions acquire their rituals, fashions and dogma. Take a look at the robes of say, Catholicism and try to imagine who, how and why they were designed that way.

    My best guess is that hygiene plays a big part in the formation of any sort of code of conduct. Some intuitive insight would lead a religious leader to perceive perhaps, that pork is an ‘unclean’ meat for some reason. If experience told you that more people died after eating pork than some other meat, then that conclusion would be valid (there is in fact a parasite in pigs that can kill humans if not cooked properly).

    Take for example, the simple act of washing your hands before examining a patient. Before bacteria were even thought of, this ritual would make no sense. Outsiders would see it as a cultural thing but the origin of the ritual would be based on a loose observation: more patients avoided infection if the hands were washed. Once optics and medicine could explain why this phenomenon occurs, any sort of ‘spiritual’ association with the ritual becomes irrelevant but that kind of spiritual indoctrination is incredibly hard to defeat with rationality alone.

    So, women menstruate, men clean their bottoms with a particular hand… Of course, I’m not saying all the religious practices stem from a hygiene point of view but many do and an investigation as to why they were developed is a great help in understanding other cultures.

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    • I was told that, medically, the best te to have the snip was, pretty much, at the exact age Jews perform the bris (did I use the right word? Circumcise boys) so there’s prob a lot in what you say. Also, where the 3 major monotheistic religions grew up, it was very hot and certainly not the right environment to keep shellfish, which might explain Biblical, Talmudic and Koranic teachings against them.

      Great comment – I’m fascinated as to what effect a handshake had and where the subsequent conversation takes us. Thanks, Ivor.

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  9. I still have to read the new comments but I have looked at Steve’s response and will say 2 things – 1) no problem with me and him at all and despite our differences I do understand his point of view, if not necessarily agree with it; and 2) I am male by the way, don’t be fooled by my blog logo (I did mention in an earlier post I had a wife, unless you thought I was a lesbian!) – now that would be a whole new debate!

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  10. I got a knock on the door and ‘the guy’ presented me with a delicious bowl of biryani for our tea. Being a bloke, I don’t reckon he decided to make extra for Sharon and me, so me and the lady of the house must be ok. So glad! And, for me, flowers can bugger off – say it with curry.

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    • I saw ‘the woman’ yesterday – I shouted ‘Hi’ to, kind of, test the water. She sad ‘Hi’ back, so she must be allowed to talk to me. I then thanked her for the curry and got the reply, ‘No problem.’ So, I’m happier than I was as I know we can converse.

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  11. It’s such an interesting debate and I’ve just learned a lot in one page. I would just like to add something completely different and away from the religious aspect. I am French and in my country we say hello in a complete different manner too, we kiss on the cheek instead of shaking hands. And it’s not just between a man and a woman, sometime it’s between men or between women. But there is a really subtle way of doing it inherent to my own culture, way of life and even location. That map will give you an insight on how subtle it is: http://bigthink.com/ideas/21262 For example, where I am from I’d kiss a member of my family 4 times on the cheek (being either man or woman), I’d kiss close friends twice on the cheek (being either men or women), shake hands with a block I don’t know and kiss his wife twice on the cheek. I’d never kiss a woman (or a man) if there is a business relationship involved or if the moment is not appropriate. So what a shock it was to me when I first came to this country and women were not understanding what I was doing and leaving me half way through the kissing process hanging with my face in the air… I kind of felt offended but that’s the way it is and I suppose these women thought I was being really rude forcing them in an act that they didn’t really want to do. Well I soon learnt and don’t bother anymore. The only problem now is that when I go back to France people think I am rude because I forget the kissing process or don’t do it properly. I am becoming a confused man between two cultures and I suppose after all that the lady must feel the same. And I guess that you feel the same John when you put your hand across your heart too. It’s just not something you’ve been educated to do. Saying hello the correct way is not as easy as it’s seem after all depending on where you are from and who you are talking to.

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  12. sunnythesurd says:

    I am not sure if should be putting my views on this but ill have a go…
    As i am from the sub-continent ill state Its cultural and not religious. All my Muslim friends, male and female, are westernised. Most of them enjoy a tipple. Even those who i have worked with and are conservative from a religious standpoint will not mind shaking hands.

    So why didnt she shake hands with you ? In India women, irrespective of religion, who come from a working to some lower middle income groups as well as most of the people who live in rural areas will be conservative and culturally will not believe in shaking hands with males etc…Hence i would look at it from a viewpoint of them following the cultural practices of whichever place their famililes came from.
    You can also see this kind of approach towards integration with western from males say in the sikh community. Those who came from the East African Countries etc or from middle class Backgrounds will have a different approach to integration into British Society vis a vis those who came from a Rural/Low Middle Class/Working Class background…

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