08 Jan Let’s Shake

Recently, I shook hands with a young man who seemed unaware of how to do it. And I wondered, Did anyone teach him how to shake hands? My father taught his three sons the protocol. I remember the lesson vividly, watching with interest as Dad and my eldest brother showed how it was done: extend your open hand, look your counterpart in the eyes, say clearly, “Glad to meet you,” then squeeze his/her hand fully and firmly, but not hard and not long. Then release. As simple as it sounds, it’s full of subtlety. To shake hands well, you have to be committed to the exchange. But some people find the exchange uncomfortable or, perhaps, unnecessary: I am surprised by the number of people who do not shake hands well. I do not mean to criticize them. Rather, I wonder what happened to them in learning — or ignoring? — this most fundamental method of greeting in Western society.

I say “Western” because people in Eastern cultures don’t put much stock in shaking hands. In Japan, as we know, people bow when meeting. In fact, in many non-Western cultures, if you try to shake a new acquaintance’s hand, he will likely surrender his limply — almost hopelessly — and you will be forced to make the best of that loose pile of fingers (or fingertips) in your palm. It’s awkward, at the very least. To some Westerners it may be disturbing. We should remember that the practice of shaking hands grew as a result of Westerners offering their sword hands to strangers to show that they were not inclined to fight (that is, not immediately). Shaking hands is, at bottom, a peace offering. That’s why many Westerners, even now, find a limp handshake to be unsettling. It seems the limp hand has abdicated all assertion or strength, as if its owner isn’t even aware of what’s at stake.

When the handshake does not go well — that is, when one in the exchange does not fulfill the protocol, either by offering a limp hand and/or no squeeze — the handshake is fraught not only awkwardness but also misunderstanding. Sometimes, when I get a limp hand in mine, it seems my counterpart has given up on me: perhaps he doesn’t really want to meet or greet me. It could be that some who offer a limp hand don’t have enough confidence in thelmselves to make the most of the practive — they lose heart.

I am delighted when a woman offers me a firm handshake — it’s striking because most Western women have learned to offer their hand in a gentile, Victorian fashion, as if the man were about to bring the proferred hand to his lips. What I find disturbing is the person who won’t release my hand after I have already squeezed and offered my best. Then I’m compelled to squeeze again . . . and wait. I don’t want to be rude and yank my hand away but, at the same time, I don’t want to be held hostage.

When I was interviewing for jobs I lived in dread of my clammy hands betraying my nervousness. Before each interview I’d rub my open hands against the knees of my pants to warm and dry them. But it never worked. How I envied those whose hand were always warm! Talk about confidence.

We must grant that the handshake is a form of intimacy between strangers. That’s why it’s so fraught. That’s why, when well executed, the handshake is so satisfying: you engange briefly, then release. It’s simple, clean, no bother. Because it’s essential to social and business settings, the handshake isn’t going away. But I wonder, who is teacing it and how? Who taught you?