On the meaning of a fist bump

Systems of social organization

George Monbiot, “Enclaves of Democracy,” July 17, 2022, https://www.monbiot.com/2022/07/17/enclaves-of-democracy/


Nova Scotia

Ryan MacDonald and Stephen Wentzell, “Mi’kmaw officially recognized as Nova Scotia’s first language,” CTV, July 17, 2022, https://atlantic.ctvnews.ca/mi-kmaw-officially-recognized-as-nova-scotia-s-first-language-1.5991298


Saudi Arabia

Early in my communication studies (my Bachelor’s and Master’s degree are in this field), I learned about the three A’s: language is abstract, arbitrary, and ambiguous. This is even more true for, ahem, “body language” (non-verbal communication).

It was the fist bump seen ’round the world—though diplomatic body-language experts and their newfound colleagues in the press saw it differently. Some reporters and commentators suggested that President Biden snubbed Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman when, on Friday, Biden climbed out of a car at a palace in Jeddah and proffered a closed fist rather than an open-palmed hand to shake. Others felt (correctly, in my view) that Biden had in fact offered MBS something more than a handshake: the fist bump, Fred Ryan, the publisher of the Washington Post, said, was “worse than a handshake—it was shameful,” projecting “intimacy and comfort.” Still others didn’t seem to see much of a difference. Cleve R. Wootson, Jr., a Post reporter, said it was important to note that however Biden greeted MBS, the latter got “what he’s longed for: a very public display of validation by the leader of the free world.”[4]

A lot of folks are projecting their own meanings of a fist bump onto Joe Biden and onto Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). I can tell you with perfect confidence that, even if it happens that any of them happen to be right, this is an egregious error. There are a few components to this communication: Biden, MBS, the Saudi Arabian state media that captured and relayed the image,[5] and a multi-faceted world as audience. Each may have their own interpretation of the gesture and it is a fundamental error in interpersonal communication—really, this is what that entire class (interpersonal communication) is really all about—to assume that any message has the same meaning for all concerned.

Oh, and by the way, there is no such thing as a “body-language expert.” It’s a pseudo-science, on par with astrology. On par, by the way, also, with handwriting analysis. You’ll be on as solid ground with a fortune teller.

The fist bump could indeed have been a relatively COVID-19 safe version of a handshake. It could indeed have been an attempt to be “cool”—think of Biden driving, or at least posing in, a sports car with sunglasses on early in his campaign (and yeah, that’s a topic in itself)—that conveys “intimacy and comfort.”[6] We don’t know. Let me say that again because more than a few people seem unclear on the concept: We don’t know.

As interpersonal communication, the significance of the gesture lies in what Biden and MBS each meant it to mean. We don’t really even know that. As a mass communication to the world, which may or may not have been intentional, it may have meant something else. We still don’t know.

So get the fuck over it, assholes. You don’t fucking know and you ought to be focusing on the substance of the meeting, including the human rights issues it raises, rather than on a thoroughly and hopelessly ambiguous gesture.

Jon Allsop, “Biden’s Saudi trip, Manchin’s power trip, and a missing climate link,” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 18, 2022, https://www.cjr.org/the_media_today/biden_mbs_meeting_manchin_climate.php


  1. [4]Jon Allsop, “Biden’s Saudi trip, Manchin’s power trip, and a missing climate link,” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 18, 2022, https://www.cjr.org/the_media_today/biden_mbs_meeting_manchin_climate.php
  2. [5]Jon Allsop, “Biden’s Saudi trip, Manchin’s power trip, and a missing climate link,” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 18, 2022, https://www.cjr.org/the_media_today/biden_mbs_meeting_manchin_climate.php
  3. [6]Jon Allsop, “Biden’s Saudi trip, Manchin’s power trip, and a missing climate link,” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 18, 2022, https://www.cjr.org/the_media_today/biden_mbs_meeting_manchin_climate.php

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.