Shaking Hands with Aliens

So you’re meeting some Japanese friends for the first time. And you want to make a good impression and show you are aware of other cultures. Do you shake their hands, or bow and exchange business cards?

This bugs me when I watch movies. In the SF Channel version of “Dune”, when William Hurt meets the Fremen leader for the first time, he uses the Fremen gesture, but later pretends not to understand the water-sharing ritual. Who had power in this scene? Who was taking it, and who was giving it away?

In Star Trek: First Contact, when Cochrane is meeting the Vulcans for the first time, the Vulcan uses the four-finger salute on him, and he responds with a handshake. Greeting as equals!

Well, let’s look at the options. You normally do greeting A, you’re meeting someone who normally does greeting B.

You->A, Them->A. Okay, they’re using your greeting. Does this mean they acknowledge you as the greater, or are they showing off the influence of their better research into you, or do they just not want to give anything of themselves away? I would be very suspicious of the motives of anyone who used my greeting on their own turf. On your turf, it is essentially neutral, motives unclear. In neutral turf, this is either a surrender or an insult, but it would not be a neutral gesture.

You->A, Them->B. Both parties use their greeting – this is the First Contact version. You meet as equals, but then you have to back that up. It’s a bold statement to make. This would definitely be the way if you were meeting on neutral ground. If you did this on their turf, I would imagine it could be construed as insulting, or a power play. On YOUR turf, you might take insult that the other party did not use yours.

You->B, Them->A. Each uses the other greeting. This would be embarassing. Both parties would be wondering if they should have used the other greeting. Work this kind of stuff out in advance. Are both parties giving precedence to the other? Who then takes the lead in further negotiations? Everyone is confused. You pay your handlers money, why didn’t they warn you!? The only reason to EVER use this is to negotiate a peace on neutral turf.

You->B, Them->B. Both of you use the other greeting. Here, you’re in the driver’s seat. On your turf, you give nothing away. You claim better knowledge of their customs than they of yours. On their turf, you give them honor by doing so. On neutral turf, though, this is a surrender. Dangerous.

Lesson learned here is to let your underlings arrange the meeting with their underlings, and agree ahead of time on the protocol.

Zephraim Cochrane’s PR people must have been mortified when he stood up and shook hands like that (maybe he just couldn’t do the four-finger salute). Meeting foreign visitors on his own turf; they the obvious superiors but still, making himself an equal. Maybe that’s why the Vulcans liked us.

So back to Dune. It’s a book about politics and religion. The Atreides handlers would have talked to the Fremen handlers. Duke Leto was on his home turf, so by using the Fremen gesture, he was giving nothing away of himself, but clearly trying to accord the Fremen some honor. Did he give away a little bit of power? Should he have relied upon Paul to do the Fremen gesture while he used the Imperial one? Best of both worlds, there, and given that he used Paul in this role elsewhere (later that same meeting with the water sharing ceremony, and earlier with the stillsuit adjustment with the planetary ecologist).

Meeting someone new is always an awkward moment. Especially so when you can’t even decide what greeting to use.

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One thought on “Shaking Hands with Aliens”

  1. Oh yeah – in First Contact, the Borg used English to broadcast their litany. Use of Earth greetings in Earth territory there was obviously a power play, and some might argue, unnecessary.

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