Over a handshake

20 Aug 2018


ONE cannot remember if during PTV’s monopoly of the airwaves, there was as much hairsplitting over every gesture, facial twitch and gait as is witnessed today. Or is it the natural outcome of the 24/7 news cycle?

During the live telecast of oath-taking ceremonies of members of the newly elected National Assembly on Aug 13, news anchors and their shrieking fellows acting as ‘experts’ went on and on about who shook hands with whom and how warmly. Who walked towards whom, who pumped whose hand vigorously, and who offered only a limp paw.

It really made you wonder if TV anchors had not heard of terms like ‘common courtesy’, and ‘cultural grace’. After all in a social setting or public interaction, a handshake is just another form of greeting. Body language is important, but reading too much into it, especially when politicians engage in it, could be misleading as more often than not they play to the gallery and it would not mean a diddly when the players decide to act exactly opposite to what these gestures may suggest.

Remember the photograph showing Sheikh Rashid smooch Nawaz Sharif’s cheek? There’s no love lost between the two now. Sheikh Rashid is all set to join the cabinet of the same Imran Khan who was previously averse to hiring him ‘even as a peon’. Tahirul Qadri is reported to have claimed that the Sharif brothers once carried him on their shoulders while climbing up to a religious site. He now pursues what is known as the ‘Model Town murder case’ against Shahbaz Sharif.

Have TV anchors not heard of the term ‘common courtesy’?

Meanwhile, Desmond Morris, the world-renowned author of books like Man Watching: A Field Guide to Human Behaviour and The Naked Ape, believes that though long and complex, the evolution of the handshake can be described as a shortened version of the embrace that most humans (and apes) practise as a sign of familiarity and warmth. In some Western political cultures, candidates on campaign trails shake hands with their would-be voters using both hands to reach out to as many people as possible. This is possible, because theirs is a culture of ‘corner meetings’ with a few dozen participants at any given time.

Over here, even after the advent of social media, the attendance at public gatherings tends to run into thousands which makes the handshake business a bit of a challenge. Some politicians have, however, taken to compensate for this lack of physical contact — partially also owing to security concerns — by blowing flying kisses towards the crowd. It looks ludicrous. Some things are better left to rock stars.

Social graces and cultural mores are meant for creating a congenial atmosphere and to promote civility, not for political signalling or grandstanding. While one does not want to be prescriptive or critical of how people want to greet or acknowledge each other during various types of interactions, hopefully it is not too much to ask to at least consider how much time is wasted in shaking hands and hugging colleagues we see every day at work?

We have all attended sarkari meetings, where the chair’s arrival is preceded by half-a-dozen minions hovering over the vacant seat, straightening the already neat line of stationery, readjusting the name tag, and gingerly placing a file secured by a cummerbund in front of the sahib’s seat. Finally, the deputy assistant joint secretary walks in and immediately overcompensates for being late by squeezing through the knees of the seated and the bellies of the standing participants to go around the room to shake everybody’s hand. Won’t a simple ‘asslam alaikum’, and ‘let’s get down to business’, do? As for hugs, unless it is Eid for us common folk or a moment to be celebrated on the sporting field, let’s try to avoid them. Or consider the Sudanese variant where both parties pat their right hand on the other’s left shoulder. Seems so much less intrusive and sweat-free.

Like sports, the military has a set of gestures and body language all its own. The ‘manspreading’ — space between knees in a sitting posture — gets adjusted depending upon the rank, and friend/foe identity of the guest or host. Another signalling device is the swagger stick of senior officials. One does not remember a picture where the chief holds the swagger stick while sitting across representatives from friendly states, even if it is just an ambassador they are meeting. The stick is almost always present while meeting the civilian leadership.

It may be too much to ask to go back to the good old days when a deal struck over a handshake was as good as a legal instrument, but one can still hope for the return of integrity and sincerity in keeping oaths and fulfilling responsibilities. And no Arab-style kisses please.


Published in Dawn, August 20th, 2018