No great shakes
What happens when two hands collide?
by Scott Kathan
As a healthy, college-educated male with a decent job, I know that I am pretty
damn lucky. My life is unencumbered by political, social, or economic turmoil.
I have a loving family, a wonderful circle of friends, and even the most
adorable fluffy black cat that you've ever laid eyes on. Life is good, and I
enjoy a fairly relaxed existence. Until someone tries to shake my hand.
When I think about the "good old days," I remember a time governed by the
simplicity and tranquillity that arose from the absence of handshake anxiety.
There was a day when shaking hands could mean only one thing: two hands coming
together in the traditional "old school" shake. With the introduction of the
"soul brother" handshake, which entered popular culture by way of the
civil-rights movement in the 1960s, that innocence was lost forever. You get
only one chance to make a first impression, and if two hands come together with
opposing handshakes, the awkwardness of that moment infects the relationship
from the start. Handshakes can be hard, soft, bone-crunching, limp, clammy --
all of these I can take, and really, they mean very little to me. As long as
the hands converge with the same intention.
Blame it on the Information Age, the global marketplace, the waning of regional
American culture, or multicultural acclimatization: the world is getting
smaller. Cultures that are far removed from each other now chat informally and
unselfconsciously. White kids grow dreadlocks, Asian kids wear Native American
designs, and black kids straighten their hair and dye it blond. There are
Indian restaurants in black neighborhoods, and European restaurants in Asian
neighborhoods. I blame this cultural cross-pollination for my fear of shaking
It all started several years ago when my girlfriend and I ran into one of her
old boyfriends after a day of skiing. No matter how much you tell yourself that
you're secure in your relationship, it is always awkward to meet your honey's
ex (just one of the host of invaluable life lessons I've learned from watching
Ally McBeal). Mr. Ex and I simultaneously straightened into
cock-fighting posture, each of us trying to display the air of proud males
unruffled by the awkwardness of the situation. This, of course, made us both
look completely and undeniably awkward. After the obligatory introduction, we
eyed each other manfully and slowly extended our hands -- our gazes locked in
feigned self-confidence. The instant his hand hit mine, I nearly shrieked like
a puppy with its tail caught under the rocker. The bastard tried to hit me with
the soul-brother shake!
Now, I may be rhythmically challenged, but I go way back with the soul-brother;
it's an American classic, the only acceptable handshake on every sports team
I've ever known. The hand angled up, the palm-to-palm interlocking with the
fingers tight together -- heck, even my dad gives me a soul-brother every once
in a while. But he is my father, and those were my teammates. The point is, you
don't just soul-brother a complete stranger out of the blue, without warning.
Unless, possibly, you actually are a soul brother. No, that
first-meeting soul-brother really threw me, and planted a deep-seated neurotic
awareness of the horrifying awkwardness you risk by consummating an
introduction with a handshake. It taught me well that there is nothing worse
than the clumsy convergence of two hands bearing different handshakes. If you
haven't experienced it, then you've surely witnessed it -- the stunned,
perplexed mutual stares, the jerky adjustment of grips that, in the worst of
cases, leads to the dreaded "reverse opposing grip" shake, the precise
mirror-image re-enactment of the very dorkiness that preceded it. The horror!
These days, this petrifying affliction rears its ugly head every time I meet
someone new. Call me old-fashioned, but I'm a firm believer in sticking with
the "old school" until there is some consensual, unspoken agreement that it is
time to break into something more informal. I firmly maintain that one should
never, under any circumstances, extend a soul-brother at a first meeting. Yet
the sad truth is that it has become more and more commonplace, especially in
the alternative work culture of the high-tech sector. I have also noticed that
it's become prevalent among club kids. What has happened to the youth of
And my problem is not confined to new introductions. Some of my friends, both
white and black, seem to think I'm hipper than I really am, and casually sling
affectionate soul-brothers at me as a regular form of greeting. My hesitation,
my careful inspection of the hand coming at me, is mirrored in their perplexed
eyes. With certain male friends, with whom an actual discussion of this problem
is not an option (we are guys, after all), I have learned to avoid the problem
by either a) raising a hand high into the air before bringing it down
into the only grip that can comfortably handle the momentum, the soul-brother,
or b) pretending I am a street-hardened, hip-hoppin' mack daddy
presenting a fist ready for thumping. Picture me, a dorky white boy from the
country, acting all "street hard" by offering the funky pseudo-black-power
thump, all the while trembling with inner fear and indecision, and you'll
realize that this is one strange affliction that I just can't shake.
Scott Kathan is the features editor of Stuff@Night magazine. He can
be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and strongly prefers that you just nod your head
curtly if you ever meet him in person.
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