The Boston Phoenix
January 11-18, 2001

[Out There]

No great shakes

What happens when two hands collide?

by Scott Kathan

shaking hands 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 hands.

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 America?

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, and strongly prefers that you just nod your head curtly if you ever meet him in person.

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