§ I originally posted this essay in September, 2018. Now, with Dr. Fauci suggesting that we may never return to the gesture of the handshake, it seems a great time to repost it. Ha! I was ahead of the curve! §
I’ve never quite gotten the point of the whole “a firm handshake” deal. Judging a person in this manner has always seemed to me like two little boys playing at arm wrestling. Who cares whether one’s touch is quote-firm-unquote? I personally suspect that the whole firm handshake concept (which for decades was an exclusively male prerogative) was just something devised in a homophobic era by men who felt a light touch also indicated someone who was “light in the loafers”.
As a young girl in parochial school, occasionally being taught lessons in etiquette (something which, by the way, I would highly recommend be added to the curriculum of every school today), I was instructed that a man did not reach to shake a woman’s hand unless she first extended her own hand. Unfortunately, this etiquette lesson has gone the way of the dodo, but I truly preferred it. I dislike touching or being touched by complete strangers. No, that’s wrong – I despise touching or being touched by complete strangers. It feels invasive of my personal space, and it takes away my sense of control about a situation – my right to decide whether or not to be handled. I wasn’t raised in the “good touch, bad touch” era, but not having the right to decide if I want to grasp the hand of a totally unfamiliar person has always felt “bad touch” to me. After all, how do I know where that hand’s just been? Is this a person who doesn’t wash after using the bathroom? What if they have a cold or the flu? Blech.
For that reason, I’ve devised many a trick to avoid shaking hands. My favorite, when I can do it, is to sneeze. Since allergies are my constant companions, this often isn’t difficult. And turning completely aside to sneeze, carefully covering one’s face with both hands, is a wonderfully self-deprecating, “Ohmigosh, I can’t believe that happened, let me get a tissue,” moment.
If I’m unable to rustle up a realistic sneeze, I cough. Coughing is much easier, and it still requires turning away and covering one’s face with one’s hand, thereby making it unlikely anyone is going to immediately grasp that hand. Both coughing and sneezing can include simple explanation and apology: “Sorry, I’m afraid I have a bit of cold; I certainly don’t want to pass it on to you!”, or, “So sorry; the ragweed is in full bloom, and I’m very allergic!” All said, of course, with an apologetic smile, sometimes while dashing hand sanitizer over one’s palms – no one wants to shake hands with a glob of alcohol gel.
Actually, I rather enjoyed this aspect of the terrible flu season of 2009, when experts recommended that the handshake be foregone in favor of the fist bump. It’s impossible to judge the fleeting gesture of the fist bump, and the touch is so brief that it doesn’t feel invasive. I only wish the fist bump recommendation was in place every flu season.
I might be happier, though, in a culture in which the bow was the gesture of choice for introduction. Besides being a refined and classic gesture, in those cultures in which people bow rather than shake hands, it’s possible, by the depth of one’s bow, to indicate anything from real pleasure in meeting someone to total rejection and insult. Now there’s a custom I can appreciate!
But I am most taken with the classically graceful “Namaste” gesture (the explanation of which so befuddled the current President after his trip to India), in which the head is bowed slightly over one’s steepled hands as the word is spoken. “I bow to the Divine within you,” the word and movement say, acknowledging the totality of the person standing before one, recognizing that they are both body and spirit, whole and perfect and complete.
Handshake, schmandshake. One should be judged by one’s stance (confident and self-assured? Slouching, unable to meet the other’s eyes?) one’s smile (genuine or nervous?) and general neatness. All the rest – clothing, accent, makeup, hair, and touch – are just window dressing. Fluff. In the long run, the immediate judgment we make of another is just that: a snap judgment. Stop worrying about their handshake and take the time to know the individual.