Pressing flesh against flesh 🤝

WHAT IS THE DEAL WITH THE HANDSHAKE EMOJI?” It’s a a good question and worth asking in all caps. Of our many body part emoji that have skintone, Handshake (🤝) appears to be left by the wayside. After inquiring with the Unicode Technical Committee (UTC) it was clear there was a desire to address it and it was possible to fix but no one had yet proposed an appropriate solution to make it happen.

Emoji keyboards for iOS (left) and Android’s Gboard (right)

The longer I volunteer with the UTC the more I find myself adopting projects that are by no means ‘quick solutions’. In an ecosystem that can never hit ‘undo’ (once an emoji is added they are never removed) I really try to make an effort to stop and ask what does equitable representation really look like, and when is it performative? Is this a character frequently used in communicative ways for a sustained period of time? When it lands on your keyboard, will you still want it to be there ten, twenty, forever years from now?

The History of the Handshake - HISTORY
Ninth century B.C. relief, which shows the Assyrian King Shalmaneser III “pressing the flesh with a Babylonian ruler” to seal an alliance.

I’m particularly interested in the handshake emoji for everything that it represents. Handshakes can be more meaningful than grand platitudes and excessively long texts. “You can think of [handshakes] as a trivial thing but I think it taps into a much deeper, and very long and gradual process of people accepting the reconciliation and accepting the peace,” says Page Fortna, an associate professor of political science at Columbia, told the National Post.

What plus what equals a handshake? (Psssstt if you’re wondering what a ZWJ is just think of it as emoji glue)

For handshake, the first step was to simply ask, whhhhhhhhy? Why does the handshake emoji not support multiple skin tones? Well, handshake (🤝) is the only hand emoji that represents multiple people (High-Five Truthers 🙏 please sit back down). With the addition of gender and skin tone options in 2015, encoding emoji got exponentially more complex. To extend skin tone support to the handshake emoji a solution that operated within the strict limitations of how characters are encoded was required. Think of it this way; if emoji are letters, emoji variants are sort of like diacritics. (Diacritics are things like umlauts and accent marks like ü and é).

Ok, so now we understand why. Next is to figure out how to move forward. First, we’d have to: 1️⃣ Identify existing hand gesture emoji that could be combined to create a “new” handshake. If none existed then proceed to 2️⃣ Start over from scratch and introduce new characters that could be combined to create a “new” handshake.

It started with an audit of the existing emoji to see if there is way two could be combined to generate all 25 skin tone combinations. Let’s take a little stroll through the hand shaped emoji in your keyboard. Peep them yourself. Lots of great emoji in here.

I’m sure Thumbs Up (👍) gets a lot of use in your company group chat. Backhand Index Pointing Down (👇) gets used a lot by people who retweet “THIS” lol. Middle finger has an interesting origin story. Remind me to write about that in a future post about hand-gestures. We’ve all seen “✊🏿” gain popularity this past year in solidarity with the BLM movement. FUN FACT: Raised Fist got emoji status in 2010 to play paperrockscissors✌️. It’s true. I know, I know!!! I digress.

Ok, back to the task at hand. None of the existing hand gesture emoji solve our problem. Only a few have a left/right partner. For instance, “🤜 🤛” conceivably could work but that’s clearly a fist-bump, not a handshake. Then there is “👉👈” but it has an “ET phone home” vibe not a “close the deal” vibe.

It was clear I was gonna have to identify new additions. After gesturing a number of possibilities with the Emoji Subcommittee we settled on investigating the value of two new emoji hands: A leftward hand and a rightward hand. If approved, it would lay the groundwork to then propose a multi-skin toned handshake that can be built on the newly created code-point for each hand. 🥳

The proposed solution

Creating interoperable experiences like fallback sequences (Shown above) is critical for citizens of the internet who are unable to update their operating system of choice. It is super frustrating to send someone across the world a message only for it to render on their device like the final clue in Wheel of Fortune 😮‍💨

So, we have a reasonable solution here but it isn’t easy to create a new emoji. These individual characters (a hand gesturing left and another hand gesturing right) would require justification of their own merits outside of being used to create a handshake. Could we prove people really use hands like this to communicate? .

Thankfully, yes. Very much so. We talk with our hands a lot. 80% of communication can be non-verbal! And, as we’ve discussed before, emoji that can be used alongside other emoji are incredibly powerful as they broaden the flexibility of the existing set. So, sure maybe we’ll gain a multi-skintoned handshake but we’ll also gain a great deal more: a way to emote when something (or someone) feels out of reach, when we want to extend an offer of help, or gently “tag” someone “it” in a game of video chat tag.

And now, finally Dog Sheriff and Cat Sheriff can finally agree on something.

The Committee agreed and leftward and rightward hands became provisional candidates in 2019. Shortly after, paperwork was submitted for a multi-skin toned handshake. The proposal detailed how to create 25 possible combinations of different skin tones shaking hands.

Handshake emoji

The Earth rotated a couple of times and then last week the UTC advanced these emoji candidates to Beta status as part of The Unicode Standard’s Emoji 14.0 release. We’ll likely be shaking hands with people digitally before we do irl since these emoji will appear in your keyboard of choice sometime in 2022. 🤝🏻 🤝🏼 🤝🏽 🤝🏾 🤝🏿. And, once there are skin tone options for all hand emoji we can move onto the next big question plaguing hand-shapes: Is “🙏” prayer hands, a high-five, or both???? 😂🤣😅

— jennifer

If you have a question about emoji, let me know! 💌

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