Let’s not shake on it

December 31, 2011

If you and I were to meet, I wouldn’t want to shake your hand. Because I’d like us to have an enjoyable time together, and shaking hands implies we’re not going to have any fun whatsoever. To me, a handshake at the beginning of an encounter means, let’s get this over with; at the end, that’s it – we’re done. A formula for formality, a handshake can extinguish a friendship before it has even begun.

It is now the season of The Handshake. Colleagues wish me a merry Christmas, or a happy New Year, or both, by offering an outstretched palm. This is when a shake of the hand becomes an expressive gesture, a means for people who aren’t quite friends to express a friendly sentiment. But during the rest of the year, I experience the mundane oddness of handshakes. I arrive at training rides or races, and cyclists – good friends, men I have known for years – offer to shake my hand, even if they last saw me only a few weeks before. It’s as if we’re pretending that these meetings are planned, when they invariably occur by chance. Or maybe, by doing something with our upper bodies, we’re each compensating for being stuck in a half-standing, half-sitting position with a bicycle between our legs.

Four months ago, I sat in on a meeting with an author and an editor friend of mine. I didn’t need to be there, but I went along because I had helped set up the meeting (I liked the idea the author had for a book and I guessed, correctly, that my friend may be interested in publishing it). The author is physically disabled, and his carer was the only woman present. At the end of the meeting, the men were all shaking hands, and I thought I’d better join in. So I turned to the carer, who was at least ten years younger than me, said, “Nice to meet you,” and offered my hand. She was taken aback – so taken aback, in fact, that she gave me what I can only describe as an ironic handshake, delivered slightly slower than everyone else’s and with a smirk. I have made it my mission to do the same at least once in 2012.

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