A beginner’s guide to African handshakes


Just how do you shake hands in Africa? Australian traveller Liam Walls became increasingly baffled by handshake protocol as he made his way down the continent – but by the time he reached Zambia he reckoned he’d grasped the basics.

Handshake--shutterstock_15588109If you are in any way averse to shaking hands, then perhaps Zambia isn’t for you. It is not just how often you’ll need to perform this act but also the sheer number of variations that you’ll have to negotiate. Inexperience can lead to many an awkward introduction and, as with dancing, if you don’t know the moves, you may end up fumbling and fondling rather than achieving the perfectly choreographed embrace. Here I have taken the liberty of compiling a list of the most common handshakes the first-timer is likely to encounter. They vary in difficulty and can be combined in various ways. And don’t forget: it’s always right hand only. (Sorry, lefties.)

Slapper starting move; difficulty 6/10
Very common. Lift your arm high, grin wildly and bring it down with force into your partner’s outstretched hand. If you’re on the receiving end (as is likely), just present your hand as a landing pad. What happens after the hands make contact is anyone’s guess.

Switcheroo regular shake; difficulty 6/10
This is one you may be familiar with. The hand orientation is rotated, switched vertically between two positions, either side of the thumb. The prolonged version (let’s call it the ‘extended switcheroo’), much like French cheek-kissing, can lead you to wonder whether it will ever end. Just go with the flow.

Wrist shake casual shake; difficulty 4/10
Are your hands full? Have you been chopping raw meat? Then just limply present your wrist for the grabbing. It’s the handshake equivalent of ‘whassup?’ but don’t let this young-person speak put you off. If a relaxed greeting is what you need, this is the one.

Elbow-hold formal shake; difficulty 4/10
The polar opposite of the wrist shake. If someone deserves your respect, hold your right elbow with your left hand as you shake.

Muffled clap formal flourish; difficulty 6/10
Culturally similar to the elbow-hold, this shake also demonstrates deference. Slightly cup your hands, hold them horizontally, and perform a couple of gentle claps before and after the shake. Lower your head and upper body slightly.

Reverator advanced formal shake; difficulty 8/10
Combine the elbow-hold and the muffled clap to kiss some serious backside. For advanced suck-ups only.

Clicker casual finisher; difficulty 9/10
After the switcheroo, click your fingers around the thumb of your partner’s hand as he does the same around yours. It’s tricky to get proper traction but if you pull this off you achieve ultimate cool.

Thumb slip casual finisher; difficulty 7/10
You might be pulled into this one to finish. Hook fingers, pressing the pad of your thumb against your partner’s. Press and slip your thumbs past each other to complete. No click sound is required, but a big smile and a friendly pat on your partner’s shoulder wouldn’t go amiss.

Extended hold finisher; difficulty 2/10 (physical), 8/10 (psychological)
Don’t be alarmed if, after a shake, your partner doesn’t let go. Relax: it’s just affection and will soon be over. Well, perhaps not soon, but eventually.

Taken from Travel Zambia magazine, edition 7, 2012