Shake it, baby — for the sake of trust

Mark Henning, Normaal, 2017. Photo Yen-An Chen

A handshake is a test and a gesture of trustworthiness. In his project ‘Normaal,’ South African designer Mark Henning speculates on a table that guides through a ‘correct’ handshake.


Some time before the Dutch elections in 2017, the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte wrote a letter that was published in all the leading Dutch newspapers. In the letter, the Prime Minister stated that “…the norm here [in the Netherlands] is that we shake each other’s hands.”

The statement, which was a reaction to a recent ruling regarding a bus driver refusing to shake hands, was the starting point for ‘Normaal,’ a speculative design project by designer Mark Henning. In the project, Henning researched the tradition and meaning of handshakes, and designed a speculative table to guide immigrants to the Dutch tradition of shaking hands.

Mark Henning. Photo Yen-An Chen

The ‘Normaal’ table is equipped with distances and measurements for different handshakes. Appearing a practical tool to learn a variety of different handshakes, the table actually teaches a set of handshakes devised and proposed by the designer. As Henning himself says, “the actual rules of the handshake are not as important as the process of challenging the participants to learn a set of rules that they would not be accustomed to.” In this process, the table becomes a speculative tool to open up a new perspective to a tradition that we rarely question — or even much think of.

Mark Henning is a South African designer based in the Netherlands. As a designer, he combines performance, objects and communication to design and unpack social and spatial interactions. His work often has a humorous output, through which he observes and dismantles complex and abstract concepts.

In an interview, he gives insight to the gesture of a handshake and how a handshake has been used historically and how it is used today as a sign and a proof of trust.

For your project ‘Normaal,’ you researched the tradition and meanings of handshakes. A handshake is such a normal thing that we don’t really much think about it. What is a handshake? What does it communicate?

The handshake as gesture has come to represent trust and loyalty. It’s a promise, a contract between two people. There is a balance between trust and distrust that needs to be negotiated with the handshake. The intimate engagement of the handshake — touch, pressure, eye contact — provides insightful moments of assessment and interpretation for the two participants, a moment to negotiate trust.

Through my research I started to identify how the handshake has become coded with nationalistic meaning within the European context. With the increase in migration it has in fact become embodied in discussions centred on assimilation, shared values and dominant cultures. A recent example would be Danish lawmakers making it mandatory for citizenship applicants to shake hands with the official conducting the naturalization ceremony.

Bartholomeus van der Helst, Banquet of the Amsterdam Civic Guard in Celebration of the Peace of Münster, 1648.

Why do we shake hands? After all, people don’t shake hands everywhere in the world.

The origins of the handshake are not clearly defined but there is evidence that it was practiced in ancient Greece as far back as the 5th century. One particular myth suggested a gesture to show that one does not carry a weapon, the open palm as a sign of peace while the shaking motion was presumed to dislodge sharp objects possibly kept in a sleeve. Dislodging weapons in sleeves and presenting weaponless hands seems to suggest that the early handshake was a gesture steeped in suspicion.

It is interesting how the handshake has become the globally accepted form of greeting replacing many traditional forms, especially within the context of business. It’s a result of globalisation, but also the handshake’s colonial legacy.

How does a handshake transmit trust or distrust? Could a handshake increase trust between people?

According to recent research the physical contact of the handshake could actively promote trustworthiness. There is research that suggests that the human brain uses ‘the love hormone’ oxytocin — a powerful hormone that acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain — to unconsciously assess if a person is trustworthy. For this, we use our memory of past encounters and our senses — including the sense of touch.

Mark Henning, Normaal, 2017. Photo Ronald Smits

What was the most interesting finding to you in your research?

More an interesting anecdote than a finding: my starting point for the design proposal ‘Normaal’ was the letter from the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. In the letter, which was published in major newspapers, he commented on the recent ruling regarding a bus driver refusing to shake hands.

One of the first experiments with the handshake was a reaction to his statement about the norm of shaking hands in the Netherlands. I was curious to find out how ‘normal’ it was for bus drivers to shake hands so I adorned my hands with turquoise blue fake nails and proceeded to travel the city attempting to engage with various drivers. Although entertaining at the beginning after numerous interactions I started to feel the anxiety and fear of being rejected. After this experiment I followed up with an experiment where I attended job interviews and refused to shake hands. I was never hired.

The ‘Normaal’ table appears to teach different ways to shake hands. How does the table ‘work’?

The table is a speculative project, which was designed for immigration training centres to help newly-arriving immigrants to assimilate to the customs of Europe and specifically the Netherlands, forming part of the inburgeringsexamen, the integration exam. The table becomes a mediator or a stage for the handshake. Through the performative interaction with the table, the project explores our need for others to assimilate to ‘our normal’ through the power relationships inherent within the interviewer/interviewee interaction.

Aesthetically, the table looks to find a balance between imitating ergonomic office furniture and simplified theatre props. The over-complicated measurements and instruments adorning the table emphasises the absurdity of the ‘perfect handshake’, intentionally creating confusion in understanding the interactions.

The table, measurements and instruments are all designed specifically for the average anatomical measurements of the Dutch male, forcing the participant to physically adjust to constraints of the table.

Mark Henning, Normaal, 2017. Photo Ronald Smits

Are you planning to continue with the ‘Normaal’ project?

‘Normaal’ is currently being exhibited at the Vitra Design Museum as part of the Victor Papanek: The Politics of Design exhibition. The research also forms the starting point for the co-curated installation A Body of Trust at the 4th Istanbul Design Biennial, which is a selection of curated and created design works themed around standards, norms, etiquette and trust in the contemporary age.

I am currently working on a commission for an exhibition related to intimacy, looking at developing new training devices for my handshaking research. The exhibition, Design for Different Futures, will be exhibited at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Walker Art Museum and Art Institute of Chicago over the years 2020–21.


The interview is a part of ‘Spaces of Peace — Architecture as Contextual Diplomacy,’ a project and a series of talks, articles and interviews by Brussels-based design and research agency Raven & Wood Agency. ‘Spaces of Peace’ looks into crossovers of design, architecture and peace mediation in order to find synergy between the sectors.

Raven & Wood Agency

Written by

Design and research agency. Design for connectedness. HQ in Brussels, Belgium.

RWII by Raven & Wood Agency

Design for connectedness. Essays, interviews and curated projects on spatial health and on design for peace, trust and respect.

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