Handshakes Are Weird. Totally Weird, But Please, Shake My Hand.


Handshakes are weird. I can’t wait until society evolves past the need for human beings to extend their right hands in hopes of a mutual embrace, because it’s not working anymore. It should be one of the easiest and most straightforward things that I have to deal with in my daily life. But it’s not. It’s always a new opportunity for confusion, missed social cues, and entire days afterward spent in isolation, fixated on that terrible feeling of an unnecessarily awkward moment.

“Always make sure you give a firm handshake,” I remember by Aunt Mary-Kate instilling this advice upon me from a very young age. “Nobody wants to feel like they’re holding onto a dead fish wrapped in newspaper.” And yeah, that’s some very descriptive imagery, and so it stuck with me, that feeling. Every time I’d shake hands with someone weaker of grip than I, it would be like a trigger, I’d not only feel that fish, but I’d get a fishy smell, I could feel individual scales falling off, somehow getting through the cracks of the newspaper and getting stuck on my clothes, my shirt sleeves, I’d absent-mindedly put my fingers to my lips later in the day and I’d get one of them in my mouth.

Gross. Totally imaginary, but disgusting nonetheless. And let’s be real for a minute, are actual handshakes any less gross? We don’t know what everybody’s doing with their hands. And I don’t want to spell out any more fabricated scenarios, but I’m telling you, I could come up with ten things off the top of my head that would make you physically ill. And number one on that list might very well be hands that have just finished gutting and scaling a fish. Maybe you even washed your hands. But how thoroughly? Did you get that fishy stuff out from underneath your fingernails?

OK, I’m moving on. But a firm handshake, yeah, a lot of the world ascribes to that point of view. Most of the time it’s harmless enough, I’ll go in for a shake, you’ll go in for a shake, the difference in strength will be minimal enough that the resulting clasp is almost equal. But that’s not always the case. Every once in a while I’ll overdo it.

I might see someone coming my way, I’ll automatically assess their potential grip, and I’ll try to match their strength accordingly, all while still making sure that the first word that other person thinks of when they grab my hand is, “Firm.”

Like I said, it gets awkward sometimes. In my overzealousness to prove to the world that I’m the strongest of hand, I’ll be holding that dead fish and I’ll be squeezing it just hard enough that its eyes will be bulging out of the sockets. Believe me, this is about as fun for me as it is painless for you. I make a quick up, down, up, and then release. There’s so much nonverbal communication going on in this action that I’m left stuck in my head for a few minutes. Like, did that person understand why I was shaking so hard? Does this person now realize that a proper handshake is a prerequisite to beginning any sort of face-to-face interaction?

I can only hope so. That’s what I’ve been taught anyway. Maybe they just think I’m a huge macho asshole. But I can’t help it. Even though I really don’t like the handshake, I have to respect its proper form. Firm. Shake. Find the nearest bathroom so I can get that false scent of trout or flounder out of my head.

Then there’s the flip side, when I see somebody coming my way and they might as well be wearing a custom screen-printed t-shirt that says, “Get ready, I’m about to dole out one of the firmest shakes you’ll ever handle.” And so I wind up, I’ve got a bullshit smile on, my elbow is cocked back a full forty-five degrees, and then right as we both go in for the grip, I really jab it in there. I want that flap of skin connecting my thumb and index finger together to make an audible slapping sound, all before coming down on the other person’s hand with a strength that starts in my neck, builds as it picks up steam down my shoulders, my biceps giving everything they’ve got to my forearm, and then, clench, there it is, the handshake to end all handshakes.

And not all of the time, but every once in a while I’ll meet my handshake match, someone who came to win with a five-fingered intensity I often forget others beside myself are capable of possessing. I’ll feel the initial squeeze as an elite shake, and I’ll react similarly, summoning everything that I’ve got, doing my best to squeeze the life out of my counterpart, all while maintaining the casual smile that says, “Hey! It’s so great to see you!”

It’s on, we’re both in it for something more than just hello at this point. Grip, up, down, up, down, up, down, now it’s getting awkward, and the both of us having made about as much of a show of hand strength as is appropriate in a public setting, we’ll loosen the grip, recoil our hands making sure not to massage the knuckles with the lefty.

Now is the moment when one of us would say, “Wow, that’s some handshake you’ve got there.” But I’m not going to say it, so if anybody’s going to do it, it’s going to be the other party, to which I’ll smile and say, “Thanks.”
It’s such a dick move, I know it, making such a competition out of what should be nothing more than a pleased-to-meet-you. But it’s how we do it. We shake hands. The ones who are really good at it, it’s like we’ve constantly got something to prove, everybody we meet is a potential hand rival.

I can’t take it any more. I’m thinking about wearing a cast just so I can excuse myself from these silly formalities. And why can’t we switch to high-fives? Everybody loves high-fives. If you do it just right, anyone within earshot will benefit from the sound of two people really saying hi. And it’s more than just hi. A high-five is “What’s up?” it’s, “All right!” it’s, “Yes!”

Let’s do away with the handshake and replace it with the high-five. Fist bumps are cool too, but every time I try to go for one, it’s either only in my head, or only in the other person’s head. And so it turns into one fist that’s kind of awkwardly cradled by the would-be handshake of another person.

You know what? Just wave. I’ll wave back. It’ll be cool. Let’s save our hands for something else.

featured image – Flickr / A National Acrobat