In the news today, another wonderful gesture story. An Indonesian politician, Tifatul Sembiring, shook hands with Michelle Obama. Sembiring is a conservative Muslim who states that he should not touch women who aren’t related to him (he avoided doing so while meeting Tsunami victims for example). Sembiring quickly tried to spin the story via Twitter and said:
I tried to prevent [being touched] with my hands but Mrs. Michelle held her hands too far toward me [so] we touched.
Here are a couple of video’s for you to see for yourself…
At first glance, it looks Sembiring doesn’t have much of a point, but I am actually inclined to grant him his point anyway, though not entirely. Here’s why: Michelle Obama can be seen to initiate the handshake, as she raises her arm and hand towards him (although it is not very clearly visible). At that point, Sembiring is already ‘forced’, in a way, to respond, or otherwise, if he left her hand hanging there without taking it, he might cause an awkward situation and possibly a loss of face for her, for him or both.
There is however a counterargument: Sembiring appears to quickly glance down just before the handshake which Michelle Obama could have seen as a cue to initiate a handshake. He is also in a posture that is open to shaking hands, probably caused by just shaking her husband’s hand, with hands available and an inviting demeanor. She may be looking for such cues if she is sensitive to the issue of shaking or not shaking hands.
It would be interesting to know if she avoided shaking hands with some other conservative Muslems in the line, or that she simply shook all their hands? The man to the left of Sembiring appears to do a better job of avoiding the handshake, by keeping his hands to his side and by looking mostly at pres. Obama’s face. As far as I can tell, Michelle Obama does not (try to) shake hands with that man.
So Sembiring’s mistake, if you want to call it that, might not be that he took her hand and shook it, but that he invited the initiating of the handshake through his behaviour (his eye gaze, and his posture). And then again, if you just shook hands with the US president, would you be strong enough to control your body language to such a degree?