The last time I shook someone’s hand was months ago at work, meeting a young man who was helping me load a truck.
I build walls of boxes inside of trucks so they can be driven to the coast and unloaded and delivered to people’s homes. This young man had a head full of dreadlocks and deep brown skin; he was shy and tended to hang by himself. He extended his hand and I hurried to take my glove off.
In that moment, it seemed his eyes were saying that I didn’t have to remove my glove, and my eyes conveyed that that’s how I shake hands/I hope you don’t mind. The moment felt weighted with our differences in age and race and habit, yet where there might have been misunderstanding or awkwardness, instead there was simply this offer of a hand, and a return offer of a hand, skin to skin, literally feeling the “reaching out” part of each other in order to read each other better. There was peace and kindliness and respect conveyed in the handshake. We’ve gone out of our way to be helpful to each other ever since.
Even before the pandemic, it seems the practice was becoming just a bit antique among young people, a quaint habit. I find myself, a Gen-Xer, never totally on board with social rules and obligations, yet still somehow holding down the fort of civilization’s coded rituals. I’m uncomfortable with the shifting eyes and vague embarrassment of a millennial who is forced to meet my offered hand. But then, I’ve had a lifetime of handshaking experience.
I remember being 20-something and trying to convince an administrator at my university that I’d like to design my own degree. His office walls were lined with pictures of himself during military service, and he still wore a crew cut. I wanted to convey my strong intention and perseverance, possibly my unwillingness to take “no” for an answer, and I offered what I hoped was a firm handshake. He returned it by nearly crushing my hand, conveying that my hope for academic flexibility was futile, in one monstrously rigid grasp. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
I’ve always been turned off by people who offer a limp handshake to my own, as if their wrists can barely support their hands, as if they intend to convey their complete indifference to the initiation of our contact, as if they are playing some role of lilting passivity and someone told them that nice handshakers don’t squeeze back. The refusal to participate tells me if I hired or worked with them, I’d likely end up carrying their burden as well as my own.
Sometimes a handshake has been an aperture into a lost way of life. Introduced to an Austrian man at a workshop, I offered my hand, and he responded by clicking his heels together as he stood up straighter, gently taking my hand, and holding it to his lips. This kind of courtly behavior is still hip among certain Germanic guys, passed down since before the Biedermeier era. My task in that moment was to balance a response of receptivity, entitlement, charm, and grace in receiving the kiss. Luckily, thorough immersion in Masterpiece Theatre dramas had prepared me, though it took a great deal of discipline in that moment to keep from either drawing back in confusion or finding something to “do” in response. It was fascinating and sexy to not be expected to return his grip as an equal, but instead to meet his presence and tribute with simple acceptance. But it wasn’t exactly a handshake.
Some of the most charming handshakes are those of little kids. Although most have rather amply been taught how to “give me five” by slapping the hands of one or more uncles, once taught what to do, they seem to relish the grown-up ritual of handshaking, the give and take of it. I’ve seen little kids offer their hands to pets, waiting for the paw to be offered back. Accepting of Sparky’s ignorance when he fails to extend his paw, they take up the paw sweetly anyway to help the social intercourse move forward, and so pass on the everyday art of sacred social connection between human and animal.
So many handshakes, and now we wonder if we’ll ever again be able to feel that initial truth of another person, a stranger, through touching hands. Feel their presence, their reticence, their shyness, their willingness, their eagerness, to come together or get closer or merely to transact business. It’s all so new, I haven’t been able to grieve what might be lost. But at least if I can’t offer the hand or meet it in kind, I know I can still play our game, meet a person’s eyes, and hear something of what I’d like to know about someone unknown to me. Our eyes and voices are still allowed to make contact.