Tuesday Talkback: Who should use the Scout handshake?

Tuesday-TalkbackSave your right-handed handshakes for boardrooms and networking luncheons. Scouts do things a little differently.

The Scout handshake, offered around the world as a token of friendship, uses the left hand, which is the one closest to the heart.

Page 20 of the Boy Scout Handbook offers this two-sentence description: “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.”

The Scout handshake uses no interlocking fingers; it’s just a normal left-handed handshake. Other programs within Scouting, including the Order of the Arrow and Cub Scouting, have handshake variants that you’ll learn about upon joining those programs.

But last week a Scout mom asked me whether the Scout handshake is for her. And it raised the question of who should use this left-handed clasp and who shouldn’t. Here’s her email:


I’m “just a mom” and I am wondering if the Scout handshake is for me. I’m not a Scout! My son is SPL [senior patrol leader] of our troop and as he was delivering new ranks at our last court of honor, I told him that he would shake the Scouts’ left hands but the parents’ right hands. Now I’d like YOU to tell me what’s correct! I also took him to an OA event where some of the leadership there shook my left hand. I’m so confused!



Michelle, it turns out there’s no resident expert on the Scout handshake that I could find, but I think I have a pretty good, um, grasp on the topic after more than 20 years in Scouting and reading the Boy Scout Handbook.

Because the handbook’s instructions indicate extending the left hand “to another Scout,” I would consider it inappropriate to use the left-handed handshake with someone who isn’t a Scout.

In this case, I’d define a “Scout” as a male or female youth or adult member in any BSA program.

As for parents, using the left-handed handshake with a mom or dad might make that parent feel awkward. We’ve all been there where we extend our left hand to someone who simultaneously puts out their right. It’s uncomfortable, and I think it’s best to leave the left-handed handshakes to someone who understands the custom. We want parents to feel at ease and welcome when they visit courts of honor, blue and gold banquets or other unit events.

Additionally, there may be some parents (and even Scouts and Scouters) who because of their culture are not willing to shake using the left hand. There are some cultures, too, that don’t like to shake hands at all. We should respect their wishes.

Some units, meanwhile, have a policy to only use the Scout handshake while in Scout uniform. I can find no argument against that practice and would leave that decision to the unit’s leaders (adult leaders in Cub Scouts and youth leaders in Boy Scouts and Venturers).

Thanks, Michelle, for the question. But as this is a Tuesday Talkback, I’d love to open this question up for discussion: When do you use the Scout handshake? And how’d you come up with that practice?

48 thoughts on “Tuesday Talkback: Who should use the Scout handshake?

  1. Our practice (not policy) is to use the Scout handshake with other Scouts and Scouters in uniform, when appropriate. Since most of my interaction with Scouts is at the Cub Sout level, we focus more on the Cub Scout handshake – for Scouters at Roundtable, meetings, or other scouting events, it is as “what feels appropriate.”

  2. we have never focused on it (the Cub Scout Handshake) much in our pack, in fact I tend to forget about it. However, I think I need to rethink this. In September we went to a camp-out for Catholic Scouts, and while there we celebrated Mass. Part of the Mass included the Sign of Peace, which is when everyone greets their neighbor, most often with the words “Peace be with you” and a handshake. One of my, shall we say rowdier? little scouts was so cute, because when I shook his hand he very politely corrected me and reminded me of the Cub Scout Handshake. Even the rowdier scouts love all the trappings and traditions, and we adults need to recognize and encourage that! Even when we assume they are not “well behaved” enough to focus, they do pick up on little details like that!

  3. Or former member … At scout Sunday, I was saying hello to some of the church members I knew, and a senior from the church came up to me, so I extended my right hand. He extended his left and wouldn’t budge until we did the scout handshake! He said “It’s been a while, but I don’t intend to forget!”

    I’d say, if mom or sister is doing some function for the troop (we have a scout moms who don’t pay the registration fee, but are as dependable as most committee members), and wants to extend a left hand, let her. If Michelle is really “just a mom” (our term for that is “representative of the community”) — and I doubt she is — then right hand is just fine.

  4. As a Scout in the 60’s, the tradition was to interlock the little finger of the left hand when shaking hands. I don’t know when exactly this practice changed, but I have encountered some of us “seasoned” Scouters who occasionally use it still. We kind of have that twinkle in the eye when we do it, as if to say “still remember when.”

  5. I can certainly understand how this may lead to differing opinions, especially between packs, troops and parents or non-scouters. Frankly, I think it is more important to focus on the significance behind the handshake and make that action an “educational and informative moment” for those who may not understand its background. Cub Scouting and Boy Scouting obviosly have different variations of the handshake. Whether that reason is to relay the Cub Scout Sign as part of the handshake or is a left-handed Boy Scout handshake coming “from the heart” is something that every scout or scouter should try to use and explain if the situation or need arises. By doing so we emphasize that scouting is intended to teach scouts more than just how to pitch a tent and build a camp fire. It also reinforces the tradition that stands behind the action. Lastly, for those parents attending the Boy Scout Court of Honor or Pack Blue & Gold, I think its fair that they should expect to receive and return a scout hand shake without suprise. After all, were they not supposed to read the handbook their son received?

  6. I have heard that the left hand handshake came from the practice, when BP was in Africa, of one warrior laying down his shield (held in his left hand) to shake hands with another. The laying down of shields left them to some extent defenseless, thus conveying the message “I trust you.” I would be interested in knowing whether, like a number of things, this is a somewhat apocryphal tradition developed over late night campfires, or has a real origin in fact.

    • Although it was based on my military service and not scouting, I’ve been taught something different. Considering Baden Powell was a British General, I think it reasonable that this military line of thought may have made the transition into scouting as well. The reason military members salute with their right hand is based that it is the weapon (or sword) bearing hand. An open handed salute demonstrated the individual had not drawn their weapon and “trusted” the person receiving (or returning) the salute. I believe that, in addition to the European/Middle Eastern cultural differences over what the left hand is (and isn’t) used for is why handshakes ultimately became “right handed” actions. As a FYI, the reason military decorations are primarily on the left side of the chest is that the shield was carried with the left arm, protecting that side primarily based on proximity.

      • The salute dates back to the Middle Ages when Knights would approach each other on horseback. They would use their right hand (their weapon hand) to open their visor to show the other Knight who they were. It then became a salute when the more junior knight would salute the elder/superior knight.

        The right hand became the weapon hand and the left hand the shield hand dates back to the days of the Greek City States and the advent of organized fighting infantry. The strongest warrior (or leader) was at the far right of the formation. By everyone fighting right-handed, the front line of the formation could interlock their shields and the second rank could point their spear (I think they were 9-10 feet long) through the shields of the first rank. The smart armies tried to place an obstacle (river or ocean) on their right flank so that their leader could not be outflanked.

        As for BP using the left hand, I have heard the story of the Africans laying down their shields to signify peace. I have also heard that it is because the left hand is closest to the heart.

  7. In 1927, BSA published a pamphlet “A Scouting Questionnaire”. It explains each detail of the Scout handshake. Left Hand is for friendship; three fingers for the Scout Oath; Bent thumb and little finger: the tie binding the three parts of the Scout Oath together. Lets get back to our Scouting heritage. “If you’re looking for a new good idea, read an old book. Let’s read the original writings of the founders of BSA, and get back to Traditional Scouting.

    • Pete, the reason why the BSA got away from the 3 finger Scout Handclasp in the 1970’s is because the other WOSM member organizations used a 4 finger hand clasp. The purpose of the Scout handshake is a global one.

      • Dave. I would not use anything from the 70’s as an example to follow in Boy Scouting. Remember the disasterous “improved scouting program”?
        BSA had to bring Green Bar Bill in to re-write the Boy Scout Handbook, which was transformed into politically correct jibberish!

        On another subject, just voicing my opinion only; I personnally would like to see a return to a “real” Boy Scout Uniform, made in USA, and erase all traces of Oscar DeLarentis and his crappy uniform and colors.

        I would like to see a real Boy Scout uniform that can be worn in meetings and stand up to the field service.

        I would like to see the Boy Scout neckerchief go back to 33″ X 33″ and be worn OVER the collar as James E. West said back in 1915. And be mandatory for wear by all Scouts and leaders. Make if functional, not ceremonial.

        I would like to see Official Boy Scout knives and axes made in the USA, and not China!

        I would like to see BSA go back to the Red Top Boy Scout knee socks with the large red band at the top. Why do you think a used pair of Scout socks like this goes for $45.00 on ebay? No demand?

        OK, thanks. I’m off my soap box now and feel much better.

        • Amen, Pete! Way too much tradition and quality was thrown away by the progressive, new day scouting (small s on purpose). I’d like to get back to Scouting as it was; not going to happen. Too many pressure groups to appease.

    • Pete, I’m with ya on it all accept the red topped knee socks. Those are another Oscar de Laurenta special. They never could produce enough elasticity to keep them buggers up. Gimme the old garters and tabs any day….

      • I got those also, and I do wear the old boy scout green knee socks from the 50’s and 60’s with green garters. I can still buy them brand new old stock on line, even after 50 years they are out there. I also have an use Boy Scout axes and pocket knives from the 20’s that are in perfect condition.

  8. The Cub Scouts have called this act a handshake but until the last few years, the Boy Scouts called this act a Hand Clasp. The traditions and use have been defined in the joining requirements of both programs. In the 1970’s the BSA changed the Boy Scout handclasp from the 3 finger left hand clasp to the global 4 finger handclasp. It is and has been a sign of friendship amongst all members of the WOSM. If a parent, dignitary, or other guest is not a member of the BSA or other WOSM program why would a Scout want to use the WOSM handshake (clasp)? They are not a member and do not know and understand it’s meaning. The same question would be raised about using the Scout sign in a group. The Scout handshake should be used any time 2 members of WOSM meet as a symbol of their joint belief in the program BP founded.

    • I regularly try to use the Scout sign in a group – any time I want to get attention and quiet folks down. And then I remember that I am not at a Scouting function and that it will not have the intended effect. 🙂

  9. Handshaking at Roundtable is always humorous where I live: I have to look at their shoulders to see which hand: green or silver = left hand, blue or venturing, right hand.

    also, the left hand is closest to one’s wallet for most of us. BWAH, ha, ha, ha.

  10. I make it a point to use the Cub Scout handshake with all of my Cub Scouts when I see them (in uniform or not). It serves as a reminder (to them and myself) that even when they are not in uniform or at a meeting, they are still a Scout.

  11. After the whole discussion recently about when it’s appropriate to wear an OA sash, I think it’s funny that this post is accompanied by a scout crossing over to a scout wearing the sash as an inappropriate time. I bet he has a merit badge sash over his belt too! 🙂

    • A good observation but there are other possibilities. Its not possible to see the “receiving” persons rank (or is he was still a Boy Scout). It may be possible he never was or that he is now an adult and subject to adult uniform regulations. Take note that he has silver shoulder loops. It is very possible this could have been a photo taken by someone with limited knowledge of scouting or that the receiver is an adult at the district level who does not wear a MB sash but can still wear the OA sash. If it is the second, it raises the obvious question as to why the SPL and/or SM is not there accepting the WEB crossover. The WEB is surely not yet eligible to become an OA member.

      • As hilliardareascouting points out, its a good observation but this is my take. My decent resolution screeen does not show a rank emblem on his left pocket, though it is difficult to discern. OA members are frequently called on to participate in a crossing over ceremony in dance team or other role. This Vigil Honor OA member could very well be a Jr Asst SM or perhaps an OA scouter in the troop. The crossover receiver does not necessary have to be a Scoutmaster, IMHO. He is obviously there as a representative of the troop.

        • Back to the silver shoulder loops. JASMs or an OA scouter would not wear silver if representing the troop. If he is….he is in the incorrect uniform. Page 14 (Special Regulations of the BSA Uniform Guide)

        • My comment was entirely tongue in cheek but now I’m confused. From the prior post: “The sash is worn at Order of the Arrow functions and special Scouting activities, when members need to be identified as Arrowmen rendering special services.”

          Webelos crossing over is not an OA function. I would concede it’s a “special scouting activity” but the instances when one would need to be identified as an Arrowman are limited. And whoever is welcoming the webelos into the troop is not doing so on behalf of the OA or rendering special service to do so. He’s there on behalf of a troop. If he were there as part of an OA dance group or otherwise, I wouldn’t expect he’d be the one welcoming webelos over. The apparent lack of rank is a good observation. I’m guessing he’s a recently graduated scout, now ASM or something, who is (rightfully) proud of his vigil honor. He also looks to have an OA nameplate poking out. By the letter of the policy, I don’t think that alone is reason to wear the sash in this occasion and can’t contemplate a legit reason from the context of the photo. I don’t fault him for it and certainly wasn’t trying to start a uni police discussion. Just thought it was a funny choice of photo based on the recent back and forth about OA paraphernalia.

      • Given the silver shoulder loops, I would assume that this Scout is a Chapter or Lodge Chief (Chapter Chiefs sit on the District Committee and the Lodge Chief sits on the Council Committee, as such they are entitled to wear silver loops.) In such a role, I would argue that the Scout is always representing OA in addition to his Troop, etc. Also, remember that the Council’s Scout Exec can expand when and where the OA Sash is worn. In our council, the SE is very pleased with Lodge’s growth and dramatic improvement and we are encouraged to wear our sashes whenever we are in uniform to further build OA awareness.

        • Direct from the OA web site: http://www.main.oa-bsa.org/features/chairman/answer9.htm

          Q. When should the OA sash be worn?
          A. Your OA sash, wear it at OA events and when you represent the OA, over the right shoulder, never over the belt.

          The Order of the Arrow Sash is the outward manifestation of the OA founding ideals: Brotherhood, Cheerfulness, and Service. The rule of thumb is its appropriate to wear the sash is when you are doing OFFICIAL Order of the Arrow business or attend an Order of the Arrow ceremony. We wear the sash as a symbol of an ideal, it is not a rank, and it is not an item to “show off” your honor.

          Examples of INAPPROPRIATE times to wear the OA sash:
          * Troop Meetings
          * Campouts
          * Courts of Honor
          * Trainings such as NYLT, Woodbadge, Den Chief Training, IOLS, BALOO
          * FOS Presentations

          A WEBELOS crossover is not an OA function. It is great that your SE is pleased with your lodge. He or she does not have the right to disregard BSA policy. The OA is part of the BSA. The OA Officer’s Guide makes that point in several locations. If you are correct and the young man in question sits as a honorary member of the district committee, etc., he (and you) should be aware of the regs.

        • I notice you left out the line “The only acceptation to these is you are representing the Order of the Arrow in an Official capacity. ” If the Arrowman is an officer, like I believe the silver tabs indicate, and his Lodge Advisor or SE has told him he is representing OA in an official capacity when in uniform, then he is fine to be wearing the sash. Get over it.

          I would be interested in seeing your uniform. How many Eagle Mentor pins, parent pins, etc. do you wear?

    • I don’t know much about OA (my oldest is a first year Scout; but we live in an area where Mic-O-Say is as prevalent as OA and is more common in his Troop) but it is custom for our Troop to send their reps to our crossover (I am Cubmaster) in full Mic-O-Say regalia. Could this Scout be representing OA as part of the Crossover ceremony? Perhaps the Crossover includes dancers or other OA traditions?

    • If you zoom in real close, you’ll see he is wearing what looks to be a lanyard with the OA sash on it, generally lodges make an item like this for a Lodge or Chapter Chief. While there is no rule or policy for this, when coupled with silver tabs, I’m surmising he is a Chief making an official appearance.

  12. Handshakes…. WHen I was a (younger) Scout, the intertwined fingers (one extra for Cubs, two extra for Boys, three extra for OA) seemed very important. It indicated we were in a “special” group, we knew something the other boys might not. Was it a secret society thing? No, just special. When I joined Demolay, at my fathers’s request, that handshake WAS secrett. I somehow didn’t take to that, I found I didn’t really like the secrecy.
    When I became an adult leader (“you have to get older, but you don’t have to grow up), I took on a Woodbadge ticket that inclded encouraging a Muslim Troop. Learned about the right-left requirements of their faith.
    I think the full left hand shake is appropriate, and that is what I offer when I meet a Scout. If the Scout makes the move to, I will quickly seperate the extra fingers for the “grip”.
    One of my favorite “skits” is a handshake…. Grasp the recipients hand firmly and announce: “Howdy! I’m a carpenter. I use a saw (push the hands back and forth), a hammer (move them up and down violently) a screwdriver (twist them left and right) and a vise (SQUEEEEEZE tight). Glad to know you!”

    • I have mixed feelings about tribal attire at some events as well. I am also MOS (not a member of OA) and was asked recently to wear my attire at an upcoming Webelos graduation (I am the Web 2 leader for them). On one hand, it is nice to promote the mystique of MOS and of things yet to come, but I also feel that it can be overwhelming for some that we focus on all the outward signs like attire rather than the true ideals of scouting. Where does one draw the line? Having been a member of two different troops and their feeder packs, they both differed in their Crossover ceremonies. One person commented that it was also the only time he gets to wear his costume “off the reservation” and to get some more use out of the money he put into it. Although that is not the true intent of regalia, the underlying meaning is and can be no different than any one else wearing a uniform: to promote the spirit and ideals based by that group, whether, school spirit attire, military uniform, culture specific, etc. It is about carrying on the tradition and pride that comes from promoting something we each value and want to impress those ideals to others.

  13. I was attending a profession meeting years ago and a man came up to me and shook with his left hand. I replied to him, “Hi Scout.” and he laughed. He had forgot about the left handed handshake. He was an old school scouter and had forgot about it. We went out to lunch and talked about scouting.

    But I do know that shaking with the left hand can put you into an awkward situation. Some cultures consider the left hand as filthy and extending it out to someone is very insulting.

  14. In Portugal, Scouts (current or former) ALWAYS greet each other with left hand, interlocking the small finger. This is used by ALL Scouts – Wolf Cubs (6-10), Explorers (10-14), Pionneers (15-18), Rovers (18-22) and Leaders.
    In Portugal, it is customary to shake hands every time you meet and say goodbye to someone.

    • THANK YOU! Evidence the change was made for spurious reasons. Gotta love national and their new ideas every couple of years. “What other tradition can we toss away?”

  15. Sea Scouts use the right hand traditional military salute and when boarding a Sea Scout Vessel or Landship, execute a Double Salute, first to the mast, and then to the ensign. The handclasp is the traditional handshake. It is delivered with the right hand in a firm manner that indicates sincerity. We believe this important, as you never get a “second chance” to make a “first impression”.

  16. About 28 years ago I was a unit commisioner to a scout troop with different types of disabilities. On a trip to the grocery store I ran into the scoutmaster Gary and his son. I said hello to the dad and extended by right hand to the scout and he told me no I’m a scout we use our left hand, did you forget? None of us were in uniform but I got corrected, I’ll never forget him and and told him he was correct. I appreciated that he had the courage to tell me I was wrong! His father was grinning with pride.

  17. History has it that B.P. borrowed the left hand shake from Premphe the leader of Ashanthi tribe of South Africa.In India we, the members of scout \guide movement use left hand shake while greeting others, irrespective of the fact that the other person belongs to the movement or not, during scout programmes.We use all the four fingers while clasping. We also salute with three fingers,whether in uniform or not.We feel proud to show that we are different.We try to explain the reasons behind these acts.Another reason for the left hand shake shake is that it is nearer to heart. This is mentioned by Lady Baden Powell in her book “Window in my heart”

  18. Scouts or Scouters, I always offer my left hand even if they extend the right hand first. Counting fingers is always a chance to fumble it, but good humoredly done. Cub Scouts always get the Cub Scout handshake from me and as a Cubmaster I gave them their final Cub shake before they crossed the bridge. I do recall from my Dad’s old Handbook that the Scout handshake was three fingered and the pinky wrapped around the other’s hand.

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