The Pragmatics of the Handshake: A Politeness Index in British and Italian Usage

Cover Page

Cite item


Schiffrin’s (1981) paper on handwork is an early attempt to come up with a description of the communicative significance of the quasi universal greeting and leave-taking ritual, the handshake. She follows Goffman (1971: 80) in viewing the gesture, on greeting, as an ‘access ritual’, increasing intimacy and thus, carrying rights and obligations for both parties. Her description aligns the modern day handshake with its roots in ancient Greece, with the medieval ‘handclasp’ between a king and his knights, and associates it with such values as ‘mutual trust’, ‘solidarity’ and ‘friendliness’. As a form of non-verbal communication the handshake must concern researchers of politeness phenomena, as well as being of general sociological (and socio-linguistic) interest. This study proposes to add some data to Schiffrin’s theoretical considerations, and to add an intercultural dimension by means of a survey conducted online with Italian and British respondents. It is a commonplace of intercultural communication, in fact, that differences exist between contexts that can be broadly distinguished as British/Anglo-Saxon on the one hand, and Mediterranean/Latin on the other. Some of these differences are in the area of physical contact, and the business of shaking hands can therefore be a useful index for exploring such issues (Hall and Spencer Hall 1983: 249). Through analysing responses to the survey and the personal narratives provided this paper aims to add ballast to notions that are otherwise mere intercultural stereotypes, and to explore possible meanings attached in both social contexts to this most basic of human gestures.

About the authors

- Douglas Ponton

Catania University, Sicily, Italy

Department of Political and Social Sciences


  1. Argyle, Michael 1973. The syntaxes of bodily communication. International Journal of Psycholinguistics, Vol. 2, pp. 71-91. Osaska: Center for Academic Societies.
  2. Brown, Penelope and Levinson, Stephen, C. 1978. Politeness: some universals in language use. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  3. Culpepper, Jonathan 2011. Impoliteness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  4. Fairclough, Norman 1989. Language and power. London: Longman.
  5. Featherstone, Simon 2009. Englishness: twentieth-century popular culture and the forming of English identity. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  6. Goffman, Erving 1971. Relations in public. New York: Basic books.
  7. Gumperz, John, J. 1982. Discourse strategies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  8. Hall, Peter, M. and Spencer Hall, Dee, Ann 1983. The handshake as interaction. Semiotica 45- ¾, pp.249-264. Amsterdam: Mouton.
  9. Hickey, Leo and Stewart, Miranda (eds) 2005. Politeness in Europe. Clevedon, Buffalo, Toronto: Multilingual Matters.
  10. Hofstede, G. 1983. Dimensions of national cultures in fifty countries and three regions. In Deregowski, J.B., Dziurawiec, S. and Annis, R.C. (eds). Explorations in cross-cultural psychology, pp. 335-355. Lisse, Netherlands: Swets and Zeitlinger.
  11. Jaworski, Adam and Galasinski, Dariusz 2002. The verbal construction of non-verbal behaviour: British press reports of President Clinton’s testimony video. Discourse and Society 13: 629.
  12. Kelly, Spencer D. and Barr, Dale J. 1999. Offering a hand to pragmatic understanding: the role of speech and gesture in comprehension and memory. Journal of Memory and Language 40, pp. 577-592.
  13. Kendon, A. 1990. Conducting interaction: patterns of behavior in focused encounters. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  14. Leech, Geoffrey, N. 1983. Principles of pragmatics. London and New York: Longman.
  15. Mauss, Marcel and Evans-Pritchard E.E. 1967. The gift: forms and functions of exchange in archaic societies. New York: Norton.
  16. Peabody, Dean 1985. National characteristics. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  17. Peabody, Dean 1999. National characteristics: dimensions for comparison. In Lee, Yueh-Ting, McCauley, Clark R., Draguns, Juris G. (eds). Personality and person perception across cultures. Mahwah NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  18. Schiffrin, D. 1981. Handwork as ceremony: the case of the handshake, in Kendon, A. (ed.) Nonverbal communication, interaction and gesture, pp. 237-250. The Hague: Mouton.
  19. Schneider, David, J. 2004. The psychology of stereotyping. New York and London: Guilford.
  20. Watts, Richard, J. 1992. ‘Linguistic politeness and politic verbal behaviour’, in Watts, R., Ide, S., and Ehlich, K. (eds). Politeness in language: studies in its history, theory and practice, pp. 43-70. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
  21. Watts, Richard, J. 2003. Politeness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  22. Weber, Max 2003. The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. New York: Dover.

Copyright (c) 2014 Douglas Ponton -.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

This website uses cookies

You consent to our cookies if you continue to use our website.

About Cookies