How to Shake Hands


I write this for some future reader. I suppose I always have to, but this is more specific. Particularly it’s for readers who, after the Covid-19 pandemic wraps up, don’t remember how to shake hands anymore.

You may laugh. I hope you do. But you think that shaking hands is like riding a bicycle, you never really forget. Ah, but have you tried bicycle-riding after a long time away? You start with a sensible helmet, judging the wacky helmet in poor taste for these times. Then you try putting both feet on the pedals, but the kickstand is in the way. You put a foot on the ground and try pushing the kickstand back. But you have to push it in and press backward while letting it slide out and before you know it you topple over. You fall into the bag of leaves the city isn’t collecting yet so it doesn’t hurt. But you’re making no bicycle-riding progress.

It’s like this with handshakes too. Try it now, by yourself. Reach your right hand to your left and shake. Ah! You see, right? You can’t shake a left hand and a right hand! What you have done there, my friend, is applaud. This is why you need my guidance.

I’ll get to specific instructions in a moment. But you need to know a long-range goal. A handshake done well will be both good and firm. It’s obvious why you want a handshake to be good. We all strive for the good through the limitations of our understanding and perceptions. Plato’s students wrote three false Socratic dialogues about the nature of a good handshake. (That was because they needed publication credits, though.)

But why firm? I don’t know. I think it’s to be sure we understand what it’s like being handled by an adjustable crescent wrench. It may not be comfortable but it’s better than an unadjustable crescent wrench. It also could be just that guys set the standards, and the guy standard for everything is that it should be done until someone weeps.

So that’s the long-term goal. Now to practical steps. First, with your handshakes, check that you have at least one hand. No one, however much they want a handshake from you, will fault you if you haven’t got hands. This is an out, by the way. If for some reason you can’t bear handshakes, then “accidentally” leave them back home when you go out. I don’t know how you’ll lock your door, sorry. Maybe you live in a good neighborhood.

Ready for a handshake, though? With the help of at least one other person — remember the lesson about applauding — get ready. First, hold up your handshaking hand. Spread your fingers out and then close them back until you feel comfortable. You feel comfortable when you can hold your fingers at that separation for at least 120 seconds without feeling strain. (Practice this before your actual handshaking! You want it to look automatic.) Reach your thumb out perpendicular to your hand, then touch your palm, at least two but not more than three times.

Reach your hand towards your handshake-partner’s, starting with your palm held vertical. Turn it slowly horizontal. Your model here is the Space Pan-Am spaceship space-docking in the Space Hilton from 2001: A Space Odyssey. With your space hand — sorry, hand — accidentally slipped into your partner’s sleeve, apologize. Tap your forehead and say you don’t know where your thoughts are today. You are “spaced out”, as they say. Smile with a glint in your eye. After a hearty chuckle go on about your post-handshake business.

Does it seem like the handshake’s gone wrong? You have good insights, my friend. The handshake has gone wrong, but this is what you want. By sharing in a “blunder” you’ve shared a very mild embarrassment with someone. They now see you as the partner in a special little moment of common humanity. They’ll like you more even though they have no actual reason to. And that is the secret true goal of shaking hands.

[ Me, thinking I’ve closed the essay file. ] Ha-ha! Got them all now, didn’t I? Now I can reveal my intrigue! They have forgotten that I am incompetently germ-phobic! I have always hated handshakes! I am using this as a chance to quash the habit for once and all! They have no choice now but to try hugging or just nodding nervously!

Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

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