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Korea's backhander to Bill Gates for one-handed handshake

The Microsoft co-founder has one hand in his pocket when shaking hands with South Korea's president, Park Geun-hye. This does not go down well.

He had it in his pocket before she arrived.
NTDTV/YouTube Screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

Etiquette, politeness, and decorum are not words that normally bother the tech world.

When your life's work consists of disrupting existing systems, you can hardly spend a moment considering whether the fork goes on the left or the right side of your burger wrapper.

Today, though, there is much consternation concerning Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and the hand that stayed in his pocket when he met Korean President Park Geun-hye on a visit to her country.

There are many moms reading this who would be appalled if their male offspring greeted any adult with their right hand extended and their left submerged with their keys, their wallet, or their small gaming device.

Yet while on a visit to Korea, Gates reportedly offended many by shaking President Park's hand with just his right, his left left submerged, a single thumb perhaps twiddling.

As news agency AFP reported, Koreans believe in respect and such a casual shake appeared offensive.

Many Korean newspapers have presented montages of Gates shaking hands all over the world, something he has done perhaps millions of times. Some have even cropped the image, so that the offense is invisible.

In 2008, Gates also kept his left hand firmly pocketed when greeting the last Korean president, Lee Myung-bak.

On other occasions, he has sometimes chosen to use the more flattering two-hander, often also favored by some of America's more unctuous salesmen.

ABC News quoted the secretary general at the Korean National Assembly, Chung Jin-suk. He was not impressed: "Perhaps it was his all-American style, but an open jacket with hand in pocket? That was way too casual. It was very regretful."

Other Koreans searched for meaning too. There were thoughts that the fact that Gates had double-handed president Kim Dae-Yung in 2002 suggested some political preference for his presidency over subsequent ones.

Some, though, might have sympathy with Rick Yoon, a brand retailer who spoke to ABC News: "It's a head of state we're talking about. And she's a lady. This is not just a Korean thing. It's an international protocol."

President Park's office didn't initially comment on the alleged slight of hand. However, as Dong-A Ilbo reported, given the attention it attracted, a statement was eventually issued: "Bill Gates took a similar pose for a picture when he met former President Lee Myung-bak five years ago. Just think of it as an American style of greeting."

There is surely nuance in those apparently calm words. I see: "Americans are just rude. See what we have to deal with?"

For his part, there has been no comment from Gates, who was in Korea to promote his new startup TerraPower, which seeks the next generation of nuclear power. I have contacted TerraPower to see if the company has any reaction


Psychologists will offer their own interpretation of semipocketed shaking.

Does it suggest arrogance, a feeling of "who are you again and why should I care?"

Or might it signify shyness, the fear of exposing more of one's flesh at first blush?

I feel sure there might be a joke or two offered at the next meeting between Microsoft and Samsung.

If there is one, of course.