Why is the Scout handshake done with the left hand?

Scouting-101-logoShaking hands using your left hand can feel a bit awkward at first, but it becomes second nature after a while.

And why shouldn’t it? It’s the Scouting way.

The left-handed handshake unites two Scouts from anywhere on the planet. But why is this nonverbal greeting done with the left hand?

That was on the mind of a Boy Scout who emailed me last week.

Hi my name is Chris, and I am a Life Scout. Today while at school someone asked me why Boy Scouts shake with their left hand and not their right when meeting people. I tried to answer them, but then I realized that I don’t even know. It would help a lot if you could answer this.

Chris, your fellow Boy Scouts have been asking that question for nearly 90 years.

Daniel Carter Beard, one of the founding fathers of the BSA, answered a question from a Scout named Jack Belkin in the June 1929 issue of Boys’ Life magazine. Here’s Beard’s very detailed response:

By agreement of the Scout Leaders throughout the world, Boy Scouts greet Brother Scouts with a left-hand clasp. This means of greeting is also used in connection with all Scout gatherings. It is intended to have this different method serve to remind Scouts that they belong to a world-wide brotherhood and that everywhere throughout the world Scouts are following this method of extending greetings as evidence of their interest in Scouts in all parts of the world.

So the short answer is: Because that’s how Scouts from other countries do it, and BSA members are members of World Scouting.

The long answer?

There are two explanations

It’s the hand nearest to your heart. That’s the explanation offered in the latest version of the Boy Scout Handbook. On page 19 of the 13th edition, you’ll find these three sentences:

“Extend your left hand to another Scout and firmly grasp his left hand. Made with the hand nearest your heart, the Scout handshake signifies friendship. Because only Scouts and Scouters know the Scout handshake, use the regular right-handed handshake when greeting people outside of Scouting.”

It comes from Ashanti warriors Baden-Powell met in West Africa. The May-June 1973 issue of Scouting magazine gives this anecdote:

“The left handshake comes to us from the Ashanti warriors whom Lord Baden-Powell, the founder of Scouting, knew over 70 years ago in West Africa. He saluted them with his right hand, but the Ashanti chiefs offered their left hands and said, ‘In our land only the bravest of the brave shake hands with the left hand, because to do so we must drop our shields and our protection.’

“The Ashanti knew knew of Baden-Powell’s bravery for they had fought against him and with him, and were proud to offer him the left hand of bravery.

“When you use the Scout salute or handshake, remember that they are signs of respect and courage.”

63 Comments

  1. As a Scout we always taught each other that the left hand was used because the warrior laying down his shield (which was carried in the left hand) was a sign of trust. That may have been the explanation given in the 9th edition of the Boy Scout Handbook.

    • “The left handshake comes to us from the Ashanti warriors whom Lord Baden-Powell, the founder of Scouting, knew over 70 years ago in West Africa. He saluted them with his right hand, but the Ashanti chiefs offered their left hands and said, ‘In our land only the bravest of the brave shake hands with the left hand, because to do so we must drop our shields and our protection.’

      “The Ashanti knew knew of Baden-Powell’s bravery for they had fought against him and with him, and were proud to offer him the left hand of bravery.

      “When you use the Scout salute or handshake, remember that they are signs of respect and courage.”

  2. Scout handshake with more meaning. When I was a boy scout, (before electricity) we shook left hand with the small finger and thumb open. The 3 center fingers represented duty to God, duty to county, duty to others & yourself. The open small finger represented a Scout’s duty to do a good turn daily, the open thumb signified one with the world brotherhood of scouting.

    I teach my Boy Scouts the old way, which has more meaning, and when I see them at church, or the grocery store, we come up to each other and shake the traditional way of left handshake.

    We ALWAYS shake left had, as once a Scout, always a Scout, not just when your are in uniform.

      • I would agree that it is appropriate regardless of uniform. I would also suggest that perhaps you try to adopt the correct terminology of “Field Uniform” and :Activity Uniform”. BSA does try to avoid being too military like.

        • Kirk, I am using correct terminology. Class A and B are clear and simple. Don’t need to change every time the wind changes direction. Someone else will come with another politically correct name next week.

        • Sorry, but the terms Class A and Class B are military (and always have been). Without double checking, I’m pretty sure the BSA uniform guide simply uses Field Uniform for what is commonly called Class A.

          Just FYI

        • BSA doesn’t use the terms Class A or Class B when referring to uniforms. For adults in the Boy Scout program, there are the Dress (Blazer, tie and slacks), Field (Khaki shirt with green trousers or shorts), and Activity (Scout appropriate t-shirt or polo shirt with green trousers or shorts) uniforms.

    • Baden-Powell’s original 1907 handclasp was simply a left handed one. The 1910 BSA Handbook for Boys didn’t mention any handshake at all, so we might assume they just used Baden-Powell’s standard left handed one as the original BSA one.

      The BSA three fingered modification only showed up in the second edition handbook (1914). BSA eliminated that US only modification in 1972 because it’s confusing to use it when you meet Scouts from other countries.

      • I was born in 71 and joined a troop in the early 80;s and I remember my scout handbook had us shaking hands with the three fingers on the wrist like cubs do.

        • Cubs only use 2 fingers on the wrist. Before the change, the Promise had 2 parts not 3

      • Hi Gary, just a short comment on the three fingered left handshake as “US only modification”. You are mistaken here. There is nothing “US only” about the 3 fingered left handshake. Quite a few countries in Europe (and possibly beyond, that I do not know) use that handclasp, at least partially. For instance, I come from the Czech Republic and Czech Scouts only use the three fingered handclasp and it has always been like that. Just to clarify. And agreed, it is confusing when meeting Scouts from other countries. We do not mind that much though. 🙂

  3. A version of the Ashanti story had been in older editions of the BSHB. I know It was mentioned in mine written by “Green Bar Bill” Hillcourt. So I never asked why. 😉

  4. When I was in scouts in the 80’s the handbook stated we used the left hand because it is closer to the heart which meant a closer sign of brotherhood between scouts.

  5. I grew up with the Ashanti story, with the additional detail: The offering on the left hand (after dropping the “shield”) says to the other person that the scout offering the handshake trusts them, ie the Scout makes the first assumption of projecting trust to the other person by making himself vulnerable. Unlike the traditional “European” handshake which says “see, I don’t have a weapon (open hand), you can trust me, while at the same time I will keep my shield up because I am not quite sure about you…”. It is a subtle difference but one that requires a certain, and different, amount of Courtesy, Bravery, Trust, Friendliness, and Kindness in your thoughts of others. Powerful stuff when you can hit 5 of 12 in one action!

  6. Was told “closest to your heart” when I became a Scout in 1949. And the dropping of the shield somewhere along the line. I found that Scouts in Germany and in México use the “3-finger” form. As for me, it is my right hand, I’m left-handed :-).
    .

  7. Good to know. I’ve always been frustrated by the left-handed approach because almost every boy I work with has yet to learn how to make an appropriately firm right-handed shake. Going lefty always felt like a missed opportunity to teach the appropriate right-handed one. I now appreciate the difference.

  8. Bryan: Check with your Islamic Scout contacts. Ask them if they use the left hand handshake and if not, why not?

    And then we can discuss the Scout gradation: left handed two finger interlock for Cubs, three finger interlock for Boy Scouts, full hand for Explorer/Ventures, four finger interlock for OA?
    My dad was a 33 degree Mason, and at one time I was in DeMolay. I can talk about “secret ID handshakes”…..

  9. I’m a little disappointed that being Obedient escapes so many in their insistence upon disregarding the specific instruction in the Boy Scout Handbook. Let’s stick with the published instruction, and save the “other” handshakes for OA, Wood Badge, etc functions. To reinforce this, the GTA is quite clear on not adding any requirements, and not taking any away. By teaching “and old way, because it has more meaning”, we incline the Scout to believe there are local variances to requirements thay simply don’t exist in BSA. It’s not our standard to give away…

  10. I think that Scouts in any dress should use the left hand to shake hands. My thought is that it is closest to the heart and the showing of peace by laying down the weapon. I was called down for using left hands to greet another Scout and not wearing a Class A or B uniform. This wás enough to make me feel left out. This is not the purpose of the left handed greeting!

    • Ive always used the left handshake as a Scout regardless of uniform as well. The handbook didn’t mention to use it only when in uniform that I can recall.

  11. I was told it was because we wiped with our right hand and didn’t always have access to proper sanitary techniques out in the woods.

    • Actually in some cultures a left handed handshake is offensive since right is for eating and left is for wiping. So right handed is acceptable. I don’t think a left handed handshake in would be offensive in the BSA, except for an international event. But then again, people get bent out of shape for anything. I stick with the left handed and three fingers on the wrist. I had been caught off guard a couple of times with the fingers on my wrist and then realized a fellow scouter was greeting me. He was an Eagle Scout as well! It was common at Cornell University to see this, but non scouters never picked up on it.

  12. It was derived from the Free Masons, is the story that I have head, that several of the early Scout founders (BP?) had masonic backgrounds, and to say more will get into having “throats slit from ear to ear.”

  13. I had a parent of one of my Scouts tell me they had to unteach this method from their son when they went on missionary trips to Africa and the Middle East. The main reason being that the left hand is the wiping hand in those places that don’t really have t.p., so trying to shake lefty is seen in those places as an insult.

    • Ive often wondered this as well. The only decent answer ive been given is that boys in Cubs are taught right handshake to further differentiate from Scouts. Almost like when you cross over you get the new secret handshake key to the club. 🙂

  14. As a scout we shake hands with our left hand to every other scouts, meaning from my heart to your heart class or creed all over the world to show the brotherhood of scouting.
    this is my understanding.
    Felix osagie.

  15. Back in the 1950’s we would shake hands with the left hand, but if it were a Scout or Scouter we had not met before we each would make the sign with our right hand.

  16. My cub scout has been taught to shake hands with his right and the book also says right hand. Is there a reason why there’s a diffeenece between cub scouts and boy scouts?

    • Yes, at least under the pre-June 2015 program (sorry I’m not as up to date with the new program.)

      The Cub Scout handshake was right handed, with the two fingers forming the “ears of the wolf” together. The thumb and other two fingers locked around the two extended fingers.

  17. A few years ago, I visited the main office of The Association of the Scouts of Panama. When I walked in there was a group of old men playing dominos. I said “Yo soy un miembro Scouts de Estados Unidos.” I am a member of the Scouts of the United States. Every man stood up and extended their left hand on greeting.

    • Cub Scouts have been using the right-handed two-finger “ears of Akela” handshake for many years.

      In 2015 when the programs changed to the same Scout Oath and Scout Law across the board (Cub Scouting, Boy Scouting, Varsity Scouting, Venturing and Sea Scouting), the Cub Scouts retired the Cub Scout Promise and Law of the Pack, but kept the Cub Scout Sign, Salute, Handshake and Motto.

  18. The whole world of Scouting greets each other with their left hand – read the original book of Scouting for Boys and learn the real reason…… it’s not nearest the heart or Class A or Class B – it’s what the Founder of Scouting – Lord Baden Powell chose.

  19. Those of you who are Cub/Webelos leaders: Did you start teaching your Webelos to use the Boy Scout Handshake in Webelos 1 or 2? I ask because my son is a rising Webelos 1 and I am curious about the approach to take for next year.

    • When my son was a Cub Scout and I was the Committee Chair and Den Leader, our Pack held a “crossover” ceremony each spring. The Tigers cross over to Wolves, Wolves to Bears and Bears to Webelos. The 5th grade Webelos had previously crossed into Boy Scouts earlier in the year.

      The 4th grade Webelos we crossed from being a Webelos Den to a Webelos Patrol. If they hadn’t already done so during their 4th grade year, we moved them into the tan shirts from the blue. They picked a patrol emblem and went by that (for instance, my son went from Webelos Den 5 to the Lightning Dragon Webelos Patrol). We started treating the Denner and Assistant Denner position more like a Patrol Leader and Assistant Patrol Leader. And we started using the Boy Scout Oath, Law, Motto, Handshake and Salute at our den meetings. It helped both in their transition into Boy Scouts, and in the parents and den leaders’ transitions as well.

      • Sorry, I hit the post button too quickly. I also should note that this was back 2010. I haven’t had the chance to evaluate the new CS Webelos advancement program to see if this would still work or not.

        • Yes it does still work and in fact much of what you described is now part of one of the Webelos II required adventure–acting as a patrol.

  20. After traveling the world in the Army and for business, shaking with the left hand is a terrible insult in many cultures due to hygiene. I do not know if scouts in Asia or Midle East, but they do not shake with a left hand for any reason.

  21. The Scout handshake signifies friendship within the brotherhood and hearty greeting from other scout. Scout uses left hands to shake each other due to the closeness of the heart to the left side of the body. The left handshaking was traced to the Ashanti warriors many years ago in West Africa.

  22. Another practical reason for shaking the left hand can be found in the traditions of many scout organizations with respect to congratulations. When receiving some sort of award, etc. you shake hands to accept the award, and you raise your right hand with three fingers in salute. You can’t salute and shake hands simultaneously with the same hand.

  23. The left hand is closest to your heart. It’s a heartfelt handshake.

  24. I never liked the “closest to your heart” explanation. Human phisiology puts the heart in the center of your chest, not on the left. Though it does have a slight left-tilt. That explanation always sounded “forced” to me. I much prefer the warrior and shield story, but do they drop their weapon from their right hand, too? Ahh, the Free Masons, now that sounds realistic. Brotherhood signified through a secret handshake. Then make up a story that one can tell the Scouts. I am curious, though about the international left handed shake being insulting. If they are Scouts, does it not take precedence over local custom?

  25. The added gesture of interlocking the pinky fingers for Order of the Arrow members is a practice I still do to this day with my lifelong friends that were scouts with me. I got my Eagle in 1986 and I’m now 46.

  26. You are closer to my heart. Scout stuff can be a difficult thing I society. Everyone I shake with the left knows or is confused. Pass it on. It’s a good thing.

  27. if you look through the handbooks through the years – the handshake keeps changing – kind of diminishes the well-founded meaning when the book keeps changing – sigh

  28. When I was in Scouts I was told that we shake with the left hand because when settlers dealt with Native Americans the right hand was kept on your weapon in case of attack, which left your left hand free to shake with. Kind of like how the English drive on the left hand side of the road because if they needed to defend themselves while riding their horses they needed their right side free for defense.

  29. Since both Cub and Boy Scouts now use the same Oath and Law, doesn’t it make sense to get all of the symbols, sayings and handshakes the same? I’ve always done and taught my Scouts to use their left hand but one of my newer CS leaders realized the discrepancy when pouring over the Tiger and Wolf handbooks.

    Frankly, the most important thing is that we are teaching our Scouts to greet one another and shake hands, regardless of which hand they use. After all A Scout Is FRIENDLY! ?

  30. …I wonder about the standards of advancement in a Troop where a Life Scout does not know the history and meaning of The Scout Handshake. It has been a requirement for Scout since the beginning of the modern advancement program, as well as the Arrow of Light requirements since the 1970’s…

  31. My understanding is that the Scout handshake is only used when BOTH participants are in uniform. Otherwise, if both are out of uniform or only one is in uniform, you use the traditional right-handed handshake.

  32. Speaking as an “international” from the “other side of the pond”, I grew up with the Ashanti story as the reason for shaking hands left-handedly. It doesn’t matter here in Europe whether you’re in uniform or out of it (once a Scout, always a Scout) – but it is important not to cause offence; so when in predominantly Islamic countries or with Muslim Scouts elsewhere, I tend to proffer my right hand and wait to see what happens.

    Incidentally, a very long time ago, I visited a summer camp in the USA. At breakfast, I sat opposite a BSA Scouter who viewed me with considerable curiosity. When I reached forward to shake his hand (with my left hand) and opened my mouth, he said, “Wow, are you English?” I admitted that I was. “Wow,” he said again, “do they have Scouts in England too?”

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