The Mormon Handshake

I grew up in the church, so was well indoctrinated in Mormon hand-shake culture. I knew that as I entered the chapel, a man—whether I knew him or not—would put his hand out for me to shake. I was supposed to shake it in return, and perhaps even have some brief small talk.  I liked it as a child—I felt “big” by engaging in something that otherwise I had only seen adults do.

 

As I have become older, I have become less and less comfortable with this Mormon handshake culture, so I tried to think of why it doesn’t feel right. I’m not alone in my discomfort. In feminist Mormon facebook groups, handshake discomfort discussions happen on occasion, usually filled with comments reflecting every aspect of hand shaking in modern, international, and church cultures. I am not the only one who finds it uncomfortable, and like me, women describe embracing or dodging the the Sunday-chapel hand initiation using a variety of techniques.

 

I clearly recall the first time I “pushed back” against the handshake. It wasn’t even the handshake itself. The bishopric member of the singles ward I attended at that time had just shaken several female congregant’s hands as we entered into the chapel. He was old enough to be my father, or maybe even older, and he happily greeted us with, “How are you girls today?” Besides the fact that I was new to the ward and knew none of the other females who had just entered, the comment was lobbed at us as a whole.

 

Importantly, we were all at least in our twenties, we were all girls to him. A female business professor of mine used to agitate for college-age women to call ourselves women. She repeated noted that student males spoke of each other as men, but student females often spoke of each other as “girls.” “You are not girls,” she admonished. “Girls are children. You are over the age of 18. You are adult women. Don’t let anyone take that from you.”

 

My response on that Sunday was a reflex, “We’re great. How are you BOYS today?” Immediately,  I felt an adrenaline rush, and I wondered if I should or would regret my words.  My annunciation of “boys” startled him, and he opened his eyes wide. He paused. I was scared. He said, “Great lesson. Lesson learned! Thank you!” He pumped my hand in gratitude, and I felt safe.

 

Phew!

 

And yet….. the Mormon handshake still felt ….Not optional. Okay at best, uncomfortable at worst. But why? I shook hands without hesitation at work and school– what was my issue with church handshake culture?

 

Hand-shaking in Anglo cultures has a long history—most often in years past, it was used to seal a financial or political agreement. There is a historical argument that a woman should never accept a man’s hand when extended to her, lest she be considered “loose.” (I could not find a reference for this, but I have had it referenced often when people discuss discomfort in handshaking at church.) In modern times, we see handshaking as greetings, introductions, and in business mergers. We see it in episodes of American Pickers (a show where the leads travel around the US finding private storage sheds filled with collectibles that they hope to purchase and then re-sell at their antique store), and we experience sometimes as means of securing the purchase of a car.

 

Outside of church, I happily shake hands when meeting people via places of employment for myself and my husband, and even at my children’s school, when I meet with teachers, principals, school board members and parents. There are hundreds of professional blogs dedicated to sharing American business culture handshaking, even those that address the awkwardness of the male- to-female handshake, and the question of the female to female handshake (should we do it? YES!)

 

 

So why am I still uncomfortable with the Mormon handshake? Is it a simple as the fact that Mormon women do not serve as door greeters at church for handshaking? Or it is something else? Even something sinister?

 

As I thought about this, I could not shake the memory of the 2007 PBS Mormons interview of Margaret Toscano where she discussed her excommunication. The men in her high council pronounced her as an apostate. Then, each wanted to shake her hand. It sounded almost laughable to me at the time– as if they were making a used-car sales deal with her. It seemed as if those handshakes were symbolic of a business deal, rather than an excommunication. It was as though the handshake solidified that she agreed with her excommunicated, even though she didn’t.

 

In her words:

 

I afterwards talked about sort of the horror of niceness — that on the one hand they’re cutting me off from eternal salvation and telling me that I’m this apostate, which really is considered very bad in Mormon culture, and then I’m this nice woman that they’re going to shake my hand. There’s something vicious about niceness that struck me in this — that the niceness covered over the violence of what was being done, because, in fact, excommunication is a violent action.

 

In this, the handshake represented power. Perhaps the men had fooled themselves into thinking that they were somehow being polite, or even consoling. But to even presume that they could offer consolation means that they perceived that they had the power to offer sympathy and compassion either as an ecclesiastical leader, or social officer. No matter the reason, it was continued, symbolic recognition of the power that they have over the women they command as unworthy to remain within the structure of the church. It is, and was, about power.

 

Men, as always in the LDS church, have all of the power. Lack of priesthood keys ultimately means that women are utterly powerless. Thus, in Mormondom, we would be mistaken to presume that the handshake is a greeting.  It is not. It is symbolic of the surrender of autonomy of women to men. Even men who enter and are not in “leadership” position yet secure their place with a handshake. However for men, there is a construct which allows them the opportunity and position of power equals as they are all united in the “marvelous brotherhood of the holy priesthood of God.” This is not the case with women. Women are being hand-shaken into a chapel run by men. Women read, share and discuss lessons approved by men, and we answer to men in our branches, wards and stakes regarding our most private things—of sexual conduct, of sins, of hopes and dreams– all in the name of priesthood power. We don’t have say; we are not in the “marvelous brotherhood.”

 

Thus, for women, the Mormon handshake is the symbol of surrender—not a surrender to God, but a surrender of Mormon women to Mormon men. Mormon men who control all we do within the church.

 

I recently read about an Algerian woman who was in the process of becoming a naturalized French citizen. Her husband is French and they live in France, so citizenship for her seems natural. However, in respect of Islamic culture, she refused to shake the hand of the municipal officiator at the citizenship ceremony, because he was male (similar Jewish culture as per the Old Testament). Her citizenship was denied. She filed a lawsuit to challenge this, but again, she was rejected on grounds that she was not welcoming enough of French culture to be granted citizenship, as was symbolized in her refusal to shake the male officiator’s hand.

 

This happened in April 2018. Could something like this happen in Mormondom as well?

 

Most recently, the new Elder’s Quorum president who was called to replace the previous High Priest and Elders Quorums presidencies, thrust his hand at me, as we threaded in opposite directions between the pews at church. Prior to this, I slid in sacrament meeting behind my husband, usually purposefully carrying so many things that I did not have a hand to spare for the obligatory shake offered by the door crew. Even when the bishop came into Relief Society in order to shake the hand of every women in the room, I had enough time to drop out of sight, or gather handbooks, or help a young mother juggling her children, so I could avoid being forced to share a part of my body with a man I did not want to touch. The bishop still noticed.

 

Yet at that moment, passing between the pews following sacrament meeting, I was in a position of giving up my body via my hand to the new Elder’s Quorum president– a man who I wasn’t even sure knew my name. I hesitated. I could be over in 2 to 3 seconds. Instead, I said, “I don’t like shaking hands,” smiling as kindly as I could. “It’s just not my thing.”

 

“Oh! Okay,” he said, chuckling and smiling back, continuing on his way.

 

Phew! Was it that easy? Did I only have to say that it wasn’t “my thing”?

 

Two weeks after this, I was told in an email from the bishop that there was spiritual hesitation on his part in regard to my attending the temple.  He didn’t say that he was taking the recommend away, but he did say that he didn’t feel good about me holding a calling. I can assure you that I am temple-worthy, and nothing in my behaviour would warrant this censure.

 

Well, nothing but for the fact that I avoid shaking his cold, clammy, empowered hand.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spunky

Spunky lives in Queensland, Australia. She loves travel and aims to visit as many church branches and wards in the world as possible.

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29 Responses

  1. Mary says:

    You raise some interesting points and I agree that the handshake is more of a male thing and women have been invited to participate in this gesture. It’s my understanding the handshake evolved out of a more warlike time and men greeting each other would extend their hand to show they literally were not armed. It was an extension of goodwill. Although, women shaking each other’s hands is definitely not as common, given the fact the frienemy behavior is much more rampant in female culture, perhaps women would be wise to incorporate the handshake into their dealings with one another.

    I do think the post-excommunication handshake of Ms. Toscano is bizarre, I think it’s more a way of trying to say “Good-bye, no hard feelings”. However, this would be something like Brutus and company shaking the dying Caesar’s hand. Ten years ago, I would have shaken hands with those brethren, even though I would have felt I was betraying myself to do so. Today, I would tell them that the handshake just seems wrong in these circumstances and I need time.

    The handshake is a worldwide, universal symbol of goodwill. It is considered a slap in the face to refuse a handshake. Years ago, my now ex-husband had a falling out with my father and my brothers. Afterwards, he refused to shake their hands. It broke my heart. I understood, but it broke my heart.

    You have a pretty observant bishop to notice that you have been dodging the handshake. I do think his barring you from the temple is controlling, but given that the handshake is so universal a symbol of goodwill and no ill intentions, he could see your hesitancy shake hands as sign that things aren’t well with you church-wise.

    • Mary says:

      Not everyone likes shaking hands for one reason or another. Perhaps just simply telling your bishop you simply aren’t comfortable with handshakes will clear things up. You don’t need to explain why. Offer him an alternate form of salutation with which you are comfortable. I think he would accommodate.

  2. Sally says:

    I think of my discomfort with handshakes a personal bubble thing. There’s an older, well-meaning widower in my ward who holds my hand the whole time we exchange greetings which is waaaay too long for me, so I disengage. The acceptance of the handshake is me being polite. The length of handshake is my personal boundary.

    There are all kinds of reasons to legitimately be uncomfortable with handshakes- germs, sensory discomfort, not knowing beforehand if the other person is a squeezer or softie or pumper can feel unsettling at times. I look at handshakes like other cultural norms- I participate when I feel like it to be polite, and I do my best to back out when I don’t feel like participating.

    I haven’t had to explain myself about handshakes though, and I can see how problematic that would be. There are so many cultural assumptions surrounding that “little” obsequious tradition.

    Tying a person’s faithfulness to it is out of line, I think. Best wishes that it is either understood or blows over quickly.

  3. Paul says:

    As a man, I have never really looked at handshaking (especially with women) this way before. In today’s metoo environment, it’s more important than ever to be more thoughtful about all my interactions with women and be thinking and sensitive.

    I was also excommunicated, and the same bizarre thing happened with me, where they said they wanted (forced) me to walk by each member of the council and shake my hand on the way out. So they just threw my butt out, told me they wouldn’t even take any tithing money, and yet they wanted to shake my hand, and told me to come to church next week? It was freakin weird.

  4. Seripanther says:

    I served my mission in Korea, where men and women never, but NEVER, touch in public. Men will shake hands while bowing, but women get to keep their hands to themselves, folded politely in front of them.

    When I got home, every church leader in my life tried to shake my hand and I recoiled every time. It was like they were trying to kiss me. It felt that invasive. The serene bow that had become second nature was now a cute party trick, and my hand was considered public property again.

    I miss being allowed to keep my hand to myself.

    • spunky says:

      Amen and amen. I love the bowing culture in Asia. I’ve travelled to a few places there (including South Korea) and really love and appreciate how respectful it is to all.

  5. paws says:

    Lack of priesthood keys means that women are utterly powerless? I do not think this is true, and I think Satan wins when we believe it.

    • Spunky says:

      Really? What power do you perceive that women in the church have over a bishop. I know of situations where a bishop or stake president bullied or required women to do as they commanded, rather than believing what women told them, and rather than listening to the spirit. They had no choice: do as tge bishop said, or face excommunication consequences.

      • paws says:

        What I meant was that the ability to call down the powers of heaven to bless the lives of ourselves and others is not contigent upon priesthood ordination.

        When it comes to unrighteuous dominion, we would be just as powerless if a woman had the keys and was threatening to excommunicate us.

    • Sheri says:

      12 year old boys have more power than women in the church. That has nothing to do with Satan. That’s teachings directly from the church. Priesthood power trumps everything else.

      • Tim says:

        It all depends on how you define and frame power. Power is not unidimensional. There are multiple types of power in this world. In the church we speak of priesthood power; but we should not consider that the ultimate power or objective. I know something even more powerful than the priesthood, LOVE. It is true that in the church women lack the structural administrative power of men. But even that statement is incomplete. There are plenty of men who have no power in church at all. But that isn’t the point either. My 17 year old son challenged a priest quorum lesson where the leader was praising priesthood men over the men of the world. My son boldly challenged the assertion and testified to the many wonderful men with whom he interacts daily outside of the church. I think it is time for us to change our understanding of power. Again, if you are referring to administrative authority, sure there is an imbalance. But I prefer to think of power differently.

  6. Amanda says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience. As a person with sensory issues, the Mormon handshake is exhausting at times to me as well. I would like to correct you on one point, though. Women do serve as door greeters. I have been in wards where that was a specific calling, usually for older couples, and I also served as a door greeters many times on my mission, and saw other sisters (young sisters and senior sisters) do the same.

    • Spunky says:

      Brilliant and thank you. I’ve heard if this, but never been in a ward with female door greeters. Are you in the US?

      • Alison says:

        The door greeters in my ward are the young women. And they don’t shake hands; they say hello and hand out the programs.

      • Amanda says:

        Yes, I’m in the U.S., but I served my mission in Canada. But it really does depend on the culture of the ward, of course, and specifically the culture of the leadership. I am not surprised to hear that you have been in wards where women do not serve as greeters. It’s interesting (and annoying) what some male leaders think that you have to hold the priesthood to do (like in some wards where the last speaker of sacrament meeting is always a man *eye roll*).

      • spunky says:

        I’m not surprised, Amanda. In many ways, wards in the US are more progressive or at least show more security in doing things like have females as door greeters. I’ve not seen it outside North America.

  7. brockmb says:

    I don’t have anything to add other than a thank you for articulating these thoughts and feelings. I’d never looked at the handshake as a power exchange before. Thank you for these insights.

  8. Tim says:

    Interesting post. I’ve never thought of a handshake in religious terms, unless we are talking about the temple – different topic. But a handshake can definitely symbolize a power play; just consider some of the nonsense we hear about the strength of the grip, hand on top or bottom. And, there are other variations such as the two handed grip, the handshake plus elbow hold, the handshake plus hand on shoulder, the handshake plus half hug. These are cultural displays with every evolving meanings. Other cultures have bows, or even kisses. There are multiple traditions for greetings. I think the handshake can be innocent and innocuous. But, if it makes you uncomfortable don’t do it. Don’t ever feel bullied into extending or receiving a hand, a hug, or any physical touch.

  9. jetlass says:

    Thank you so much for writing this. “…avoid being forced to share a part of my body with a man I did not want to touch.” How often do we force little children, after their baptismal confirmation, to thrust their little hands into grown male hands without their consent? How often, even when they prefer to shy away, are they forced to walk that circle of priesthood holders and make all that physical contact as some sort of show of gratitude for the men’s priesthood service? Then later when they become little beehives or deacons, parents force them to do the same when they are set apart or ordained, and so the indoctrination has begun: “your body is not your own; church protocol trumps your consent. Take this man’s hand. He has authority. You are not an agent over your body.” What awful messages to send! I am really glad that you wrote this–it has really opened my eyes to about a gazillion parenting mistakes I have made. Thank you.

    • AuntM says:

      For me, the confirmation itself felt like a physical violation. How often do strangers put their hands on your head? It’s almost never in my culture. But I “had” to let these strangers put their hands on my head which felt incredibly intimate. Their circle blocked my view of the congregation; I felt trapped. I felt coerced as no one asked my permission to serve in the circle (i.e., no one asked my permission to touch my head).

  10. Lily says:

    I have heard, as you have, that historically men and women did not shake hands, but I heard it somewhat in reverse of the way you explained it. Men were considered rude to offer to shake a woman’s hand. I wonder if we might be better off going back to the old manners – keep your hands to yourself. You really don’t have the right to touch someone else.

  11. IDIAT says:

    Wow. Who knew adult Mormon women believe allowing a Mormon man to shake their hand will give them cooties. We don’t want to shake your weak, limp wristed, hand sanitizer soaked hands, anyway.

    • Anna says:

      Please do not mock. This is serious and has to do with giving consent before being familiar with someone. As a sexual abuse survivor, I find the male demand to be more familiar with me than I am comfortable with a violation of my space, my bodily integrity, and my consent. It can be very triggering and feels like a mini rape. Just like you should find out if a woman is willing to kiss you, before forcing yourself on her, you should find out if she is willing to have you paw her hand, before you shove your hand at her. And if she backs away from you, that is not rude. You were the one who was rude to demand a familiarity with her she was not ready to give.

      • IDIAT says:

        Not mocking, and there is no “male demand to be more familiar with” you. Millions of friends — and strangers — shake hands every day. It can mean any number of things, but I think the most common interpretation would be that it is a token of friendship and greeting, and nothing more. (yes, I’ve read the articles of what certain types of handshakes can mean.) Certainly if you (or any other woman for that matter) don’t want to shake hands, I don’t think a male would take offense. Any more than the fact that I don’t take offense when a non-member offers me alcohol or coffee or tea. A simple “No thanks, I’d rather not shake hands” will suffice. Have we really gotten to the point that a church member needs to formally ask someone (male or female) “Can I shake your hand?” We’re in a sad state of affairs if that is truly the case. I have the distinct feeling the people offended by hand shaking are a very small minority. It doesn’t mean you should “have” to shake someone’s hand if you don’t want to, but don’t transfer your heightened sense of body violation onto everyone else. And for the record, I’ve never “pawed” a woman’s hand. And you don’t want to get me started on what I think of the OP’s clear disdain for all priesthood holders and hence, most male members of the church. The author needs to make her thoughts public to all members of her ward so they’ll know exactly how much contempt she has not only for church leaders in general, but specifically towards the husbands of any of her friends in the church.

      • Spunky says:

        IDIAT,
        “I don’t think a male would take offense.”

        Hate to break it to you, but some men do. Some men believe that not shaking their hand is an admission of unworthiness, or outright disrespectful to their position. I have personally only encountered these negative reactions at church.

        “And you don’t want to get me started on what I think of the OP’s clear disdain for all priesthood holders and hence, most male members of the church.”
        Don’t censor me, sir. I have no disdain for Mormon men as a whole; I love and respect many of these men. I do not like the power structure of the church. You seem to be confused that these are two different things. I assure you, they are not the same.

      • guest says:

        I don’t think extending a hand for a handshake is inherently rude. Consent is provided when the other persons takes the hand, or offers her own. If you are not forced to shake then there is no problem. The US culture, not just Mormons, uses a handshake in many ways, one of which is a friendly greeting gesture. But if that bothers you then don’t take the hand. But we should be careful and not condemn a person for extending the hand.

      • Spunky says:

        I also don’t think it is rude or has cultural issues that make it inappropriate. I simply address the power structure in the Mormon handshake– and how I feel at ease in shaking men’s hands in a business setting, but I am uncomfortable in doing so in Mormon settings because of the inherent inequality between men and women. What’s more is that while some men at church have had no issue with my not shaking hands, others are offended– which then makes me feel pressured to surrender a part of my body to them to be polite. I don’t like that feeling.

        Thank you for your comment!

      • Anna says:

        IDIAT, men DO take offense, but I have only had that happen at church. In the rest of the world, people seem to respect that I should have a choice as to whether to touch them or not.

        And, it is too “familiar” to me to touch any stranger, or even acquaintances. And it is rude to just assume that I want to be touched, and then not fully respect my decline. I do not like to be touched by strangers, ever. I have had many Mormon men take my handshake, and use his clutch to pull me into a hug. That is too familiar, especially when I didn’t really want to shake their hand, and I never *want* to shake hands, I only am forced to tolerate it because it is so ingrained in Mormon culture. You seem to think that people are just fine if I just do not respond to their offered hand. But I have had men reach down to where my hand is and grab it after I did not respond how they wanted. I have had men grab me by both shoulders after I back away from their offered hand as if my backing away from them was a mistake I didn’t mean. Way, way too often Mormon men do not respect my declining to shake. They get huffy, they say things about how rude I am not to accept their offered hand. It seems that in the Mormon world, I do not have the right to just not take the offered hand. I find that attitude rude, pushy, and obnoxious. But I have only had things like this happen in the Mormon church.

        So, don’t tell me all I have to do is not accept the offered hand. I wish Mormon men had enough respect to accept that.

    • Spunky says:

      IDIAT, Just a Male, Curious and Udderly Don’t Care,

      It is against our comment policy to use more than one moniker as it leads to sock-puppetry. Consider yourself warned.

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