On Friday, Donald Trump met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and the result was a 19-second-long handshake that was almost too awkward for words. Sure, a handshake isn’t a typical greeting in Japan. It’s customary to respect each other’s personal space and opt for a bow instead.
However, as CNN reports, the handshake between Trump and Abe was initiated by the Japanese prime minister. While the two world leaders met in the Oval Office for a high-profile photo-op, Abe asked the former reality TV star-turned-president if he’d like to shake, in a move prompted by members of the Japanese media who were present at the White House.
“Shall we shake hands?”
Things swiftly went downhill from there, and resulted in Prime Minister Abe making some faces that indicated he may have regretted breaking his nation’s standard handshake protocol. Donald Trump patted Shinzo Abe’s hand several times, held on tight and pulled his fellow world leader closer. The entire awkward ordeal resulted in a 19-second handshake that left the Japanese prime minister eager to retrieve his hand, which he did as soon as Trump released it.
— BBC News (World) (@BBCWorld) February 11, 2017
After the handshake between Abe and Trump ended, the pair pulled away from one another. That’s when the non-verbal communication kicked in, and Donald Trump flashed a double “thumbs up.” Shinzo Abe, on the other hand, rolled his eyes for the world to see, appearing to silently appeal to the rest of the people in the room for help.
The end of the 19 second handshake with PM of Japan Abe and Trump.. cringe-worthy! Watch the PM roll his eyes. pic.twitter.com/UCyssLemGM
— M.H.SanFran (@SanFranMoman) February 12, 2017
As the media packed up and left the room following the exchange, Trump tried to save face by commenting on the strength of Shinzo Abe’s hands.
The awkward 19-second handshake between the two statesmen, as well as the cringe-worthy few seconds that followed the end of the hand-clasping, were quickly immortalized in GIF form. Social media platforms exploded with commentary as the world reacted to the almost too-awkward-to-watch interaction.
@NumbersMuncher i think the best part is Donald Trumps 2-thumbs up, like what does that mean? Haha
— Jadon P. (@portsy_16) February 12, 2017
— Imeh (@emipapaa) February 12, 2017
@C4Ciaran Trump team not well versed. Japanese people are not happy to be touched by strangers. Maybe little hands squeezed too hard
— june otis (@june_otis) February 11, 2017
However, despite the social media reaction to the almost unparalleled awkwardness that unfolded between Trump and Abe, Quartz reports that the reason behind the strange handshake could have been two-fold. First, an unfortunate misunderstanding when some words and communications got lost in translation. Second, according to a body-language expert, Trump has a history of using a handshake as a “power play.”
The Trump and Abe handshake took place just before the president and prime minister left Washington, D.C., to head to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Resort in Florida for a golf mini-vacation. As previously mentioned, Shinzo Abe initiated the cringe-worthy handshake at the urging of the Japanese media.
PM Shinzō Abe facial expression after 19 second 'hand mauling' by Trump says it all: 'This motherf*cker's a loon!' https://t.co/mP5XaIYyzY
— Bill Madden (@activist360) February 10, 2017
After Trump patted Abe’s hand and pulled the prime minister in a little bit closer, he reportedly asked, “What are they saying?” The newly-inaugurated president is said to have been referring to the Japanese media members in the room. Abe responded to Trump’s query with a translation.
“Please, look at me.”
It has been speculated that Donald Trump misunderstood Abe at that point, believing that the prime minister was instructing him rather than translating, because that’s when Trump began looking at Abe with a big smile on his face. Trump appeared to ignore (or disregard) Shinzo Abe’s hand gestures that indicated the direction the president should be steering his gaze. What resulted was a much different outcome than an Obama handshake with Abe earlier in the year.
Trump isn't the first time Shinzō Abe has had an interesting handshake with an American president (and Tony Abbott!) pic.twitter.com/OtSHF94FK4
— Bradd Jaffy (@BraddJaffy) February 10, 2017
Whether or not the Trump and Abe handshake was due to an innocent (and unfortunate) miscommunication, it’s far from the first time Trump has made a handshake weird. According to body language expert Joe Navarro, author of the book What Everybody is Saying, Donald Trump has been yanking people close as part of his handshaking process since his day’s on The Apprentice.
“[It’s like playing] jiujitsu with your hand. All that it does is that it leaves a bad taste in your mouth and causes psychological discomfort. Frankly, it’s rude.”
Trump was caught on camera in recent weeks awkwardly shaking the hand of Neil Gorsuch.
This handshake between Trump and Neil Gorsuch is so freaking weird.pic.twitter.com/azkxwWtzsh
— Erick Fernandez (@ErickFernandez) February 2, 2017
And Rex Tillerson, who resisted.
Trump has reportedly also had awkward (or pushy) handshake encounters with Mitt Romney, Nancy Polosi, and Mike Pence, among others.
According to the body language expert, the handshake between Trump and Abe was made even more off-putting because of the way Trump covered Abe’s hand with his own, as well as patted it. According to Joe Navarro, patting or tapping the back of someone’s hand should be reserved for grandparents with their grandchildren (or other such relationships), and covering someone’s hand with your own is a blatant attempt to make people appear “closer than they really are.”
— livevirtualauctions (@livevirtualbid) February 3, 2017
Navarro goes on to call the back of a person’s hand an “intimate zone,” adding that a back-of-the-hand pat is akin to violating someone’s personal space, and that it can cause the person being patted to feel extremely uncomfortable.
“You are entitled to touch the palm of their hand when you shake hands, but not the intimate zone.”
Because a handshake is already pushing the boundaries of contact in Japanese culture, where the tradition is to merely bow, and because the photo-op situation forced the handshake to go on longer than it would have otherwise, the situation was simply awkward to the point that many felt compelled to look away. Or, as in the case of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, follow up the Trump handshake with a dramatic roll of the eyes.
[Featured Image by Evan Vucci/AP Images]