Will’s World: Sniff it Out

By Will Carlin

Some matches were blowouts; others were excruciatingly close. Some matches were filled with incredibly hard hitting; others were played with an inordinate number of deft drop shots and sky high lobs. Some matches featured regular rallies of thirty or more; others had few rallies of more than a couple of shots.

But every match at the recently completed National Championships in Charlottesville, Virginia, ended the same way. Every single match.
The two players shook hands.

Right after the final point, some players chose to embrace rather than immediately shake hands, but even then, at some point, the two players eventually shook hands.
All of us likely have heard the common origin story of the handshake—the one that Wikipedia puts forward as having “…originated as a gesture of peace by demonstrating that the hand holds no weapon.”

These days, handshake customs are specific to cultures, but in most western countries it is commonly performed upon meeting, greeting, parting, offering congratulations, expressing gratitude, or completing an agreement. In many competitive situations, like sports, it is commonly done to convey appreciation of an opponent, and it is a sign of good sportsmanship.

In a recent article in The Atlantic, Cari Romm provocatively writes about a recent study completed by the Weizmann Institute in Israel that adds a new evolutionary perspective to the custom of shaking hands: “…the researchers argue that the custom of shaking hands may have evolved primarily as an excuse for people to judge each other by way of scent, gleaning information from the chemicals passed from palm to palm.”

As with many studies of this type, the research was clever. When volunteers showed up, they were greeted by a researcher who either did or did not shake hands before asking them to wait. While the volunteers waited in a room alone, they were filmed.

We all touch our face far more than we think we do, and when we put our hands near our noses, we instinctively sniff (taking in twice as much air as when just breathing normally). In the experiment, subjects who shook hands sniffed their right hands more than twice as much as those who hadn’t.

The lead author of the study, Ida Frumin, said the research didn’t explain why this happened, but that it is a safe bet to think that there is relevant information being transferred and processed, even though we aren’t now sure of the specifics.

In the comments section of Romm’s online version of the article, readers had two common reactions: denial (“Who the heck sniffs their hands? I Purell…”) and disgust (“I think I speak for more than a few when I say ‘Ick’”), but others think there is something to this. Perhaps intimate.

Think for a moment about how many squash players in your life you immediately liked (or didn’t) after playing only one match. Perhaps it was a classy act of sportsmanship during your match, perhaps it was a well-meaning insult to tease you, or perhaps it was just the conversation after the match. When you think about how many people in squash you liked right away, it doesn’t seem unreasonable that some meaningful information may have been transmitted by smell.

Squash is one of the most intimate of sports. You are in a closed room, you bump, you run into, you dance into and out of each other’s space. You don’t really need a handshake to be given the opportunity to smell our opponents. We can certainly all agree on that.
Still, we shake hands. And we value it highly.

When we are young and our chief desire is to be the best, many of us can be forgiven for having wished that a certain opponent didn’t play or didn’t exist, because then we would be… [fill in the blank].

It is only later that we realize how lucky we are that there are opponents out there who challenge us, who give us something to strive for, who provide us with the opportunity to have that excruciatingly close win or that big upset. (It is funny, isn’t it, how often young players don’t like ‘playing down’ but then secretly wish that a troublesome opponent didn’t play? They haven’t yet made the connection between the quality of opponent and the satisfaction of the win.)

So, when we shake hands in squash, we try to do it right; we make eye contact, we shake firmly and warmly and we either thank our opponent or congratulate them (or both).

It isn’t surprising that long-time opponents often embrace after a close match. We appreciate the effort. We appreciate the contest. We appreciate having an opponent to play. We appreciate that the opponent is still there, still giving effort. We give thanks.

Often—perhaps more often than might seem probable—we become friends. Close friends, even.

You could say that we passed each other’s, you know, smell test.

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