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I have recently had contact with an acquaintance from Eastern Africa (I think from Ethiopia or Somalia). When the person greeted me, she shook my hand while holding her elbow of the right arm with the left hand (see image). After this happened a few times, I figured it was not just a coincidence.

Does this gesture have any meaning?

drawing of person holding elbow

  • 3
    I'm curious - do they put their hand over top their elbow or underneath? (your image doesn't show that, ha!) – hurleystylee Jan 18 '18 at 16:32
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    Some of the answers, IMO, are lacking and just saying "It's just because..." - while I'm sure nowadays it's true, I'd think there's some origin of the gesture? You could argue we shake hands, just because it's rude not to ...but the origin is generally to show you're not holding a weapon. I wonder when the addition of touching your elbow was introduced in Africa, as it is apparently very commonplace. (Maybe to show you're not hiding a weapon in that other hand?) – BruceWayne Jan 18 '18 at 18:21
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    I feel like it's similar in (at least some parts of) Asia, where people would hold their wrist with their left hand while shaking your hand, maybe also how they would hand you their business cards with two hands. It's a form of respect. – user276648 Jan 19 '18 at 6:35
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    Interesting --- in other cultures, holding your inner elbow is an insulting gesture. – Federico Poloni Jan 19 '18 at 8:02
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    @FedericoPoloni It is not the "holding the inner elbow"; moving the forearm up is a part of the gesture. Without that part the movement means nothing. – SJuan76 Jan 19 '18 at 10:37
73

It's a sign of respect. A bit like using both hands to shake yours. (Source: I lived in Africa for something like 7 years.)

I personally found this more common in West Africa than East Africa.

Edit: Perhaps as clarification, the right elbow typically is held with the left hand, as if to support the right arm. But, I've also often seen 'just' touching the right forearm with the fingers of the left hand.

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    I encountered this a lot in rural Malawi and not so much in rural Tanzania. My theory is that because Malawi receives few tourists, and fewer Americans, and especially fewer Americans with my skin tone, it was a bigger deal when I showed up in a village. – choster Jan 17 '18 at 17:30
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    Come to think of it, this was also more common when I lived in Zimbabwe. – MastaBaba Jan 17 '18 at 17:36
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    I can confirm that this is true for most cultures in Zimbabwe and South Africa as well. It is a sign of respect and I was taught it signified the weight of the other persons hand that you could not shake theirs with only your one. – Galaxy Jan 18 '18 at 11:22
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    Confirmed here in Uganda. You just do it because its rude not to – E. Huckabee Jan 18 '18 at 14:57
49

As MastaBaba said, it's a sign of respect. As an Ethiopian, most of us were taught as children to hold our hand (anywhere on the forearm) when greeting elders (basically anyone older). It is considered rude to shake hands without holding one's arm, and in most cases the person (elder) will be offended. Sometimes, the person may also look down during the handshake, which is also another sign of respect.

15

Having lived in Uganda Africa for almost 8 years I think I can answer your question.

Here in Uganda its a sign of respect. I often place my hand on my elbow when shaking the hands of the elderly because I acknowledge their old age and their knowledge. It means they acknowledge you and respect you. Like @Kidus answered its considered rude to not place your other hand on some part of your forearm. Sometimes the person will nod his/her head toward the ground while shaking your hand, Its also a sign of respect and it would be disrespectful not to follow suit.

6

I think it is the respectful way of shaking hands. I assume this from reading The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency books (set in Botswana) where the main character refers to this as the proper way of shaking hands. A foreigner who shows respect by shaking hands this way goes up in the character’s estimation.

5

Just as another place where it is done, this is the standard way of shaking hands in the sport of Taekwondo. See this page for example:

Shaking Hands

A Taekwon-Do handshake is always given with two hands. With the right hand extended, place the left hand palm down under the right elbow. This is a gesture of respect and should be used at all times, even outside the dojang, when giving or receiving items, as well as when shaking hands.

  • Welcome to TSE. This answer was flagged for quality, possibly because it doesn't address the actual question that was asked, about the gesture as used in East Africa. At least, you have not presented a case connecting the two, as it's extremely unlikely that formal practice in a Korean martial art is what informs the folk practice on the other side of the hemisphere. As such, it might have been better-received as a comment. – choster Jan 19 '18 at 15:58
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    @choster Yeah, I suppose. The question title is Handshake while holding own right elbow and the only actual question in the text is Does this gesture have any meaning? so I thought the relevance is direct, if not specifically for Africa. – Peter K. Jan 19 '18 at 17:32
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    This is exactly what came to mind for me when I saw the question title. Even pouring drinks is done in the same way. – Amani Kilumanga Jan 20 '18 at 17:20
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My experience is with Nepal, transaction like paying or gifting are conducted with the right hand. Placing the left hand on the right elbow connotes greater respect or formality to the transaction. Adding the hand to elbow is like changing "Its nice to meet you" to "Its very nice to meet you" or "Thank you" to "Thank you, sir".

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    I'm not sure of the connection between your two sentences here, can you elaborate? – Azor Ahai Jan 18 '18 at 1:00
  • @Azor-Ahai Edited – Jammin4CO Jan 19 '18 at 21:48

protected by choster Jan 18 '18 at 15:27

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