If I see another journo/blog/social media in-depth analysis of Trump’s latest handshake gaffe, I probably won’t do much but I definitely won’t be impressed. It’s not that it’s a tired topic (which it is), it’s the actual act of handshaking that I, a painfully under-socialized person, don’t exactly support.
Having just completed my master’s degree, I am once again re-entering the job application game and finding myself reading articles and watching how-to videos on the art of shaking hands. We’ve been conditioned to think that shaking hands is a necessary step in introductions and making a good first impression. Handshaking, we are told, demonstrates friendliness, goodwill, et cetera. But it really, really doesn’t.
The handshake, as noted by the endless think pieces on politicians’ greetings, is rife with meaning, power relations, and copious germ exchange. We know that. We shake hands to judge the character of this person we just met, to establish dominance, to communicate who we are. Yet despite being a communications specialist who should presumably be fascinated in the ritual, I hate it. Is hate a strong word? Good. I’ll repeat: I hate it.
It’s not just the germ issue. Although it is an issue. I don’t think you need to be a germophobe to rationally understand that handshaking is disgusting. Even the cheek kiss is less objectionable. Think about it. How many surfaces have someone’s lips touched during an average work day? A coffee cup, maybe someone else’s lips or cheeks, some leftover rice pilaf if it’s after lunch. The hands though…that would be a list that would make for one long paragraph I’ve no intent to write. There is nothing irrational about not wishing to touch a stranger’s hand.
Beyond that though is the actual psycho-social exchange that really grinds me. As I’ve noted, we’re not really exchanging greetings or goodwill when we shake hands. We’re sizing each other up and making conclusions that are teeming with outdated hegemonic values. After all, what makes a good handshake, at least here in the West? Firmness. We put so much undue value on the firmness of a handshake and faith in the person who has one. A firm handshake signifies strength (of any kind), confidence, and an overall good impression of character. It can also determine one’s power over another person. That’s a lot of traditionally masculine traits and it seems to me that the handshakes that we deem “good” perpetuate societal values that put masculinity on top.
I’ve never had a very good handshake and my physical appearance gives it away quite quickly. People really like to—and feel comfortable—commenting on my body. I’m not sure if that’s every woman’s experience, but everyone from relatives to complete strangers has felt comfortable commenting on it. I have what you may call a very “feminine” frame and I consistently receive compliments, backhanded compliments, and condescending remarks on it. I’ve never appreciated them in any form. But I could always tell the judgement of my character being formed on people’s faces as they made the comment. It’s the same judgement that’s formed when I shake people’s hands. Part of my feminine body are my feminine hands, which give feminine handshakes. Unless I make a concerted effort to hurt you (and myself), that handshake won’t be firm. In fact, my instinctive reaction to someone extending their hand is to extend them mine as if to kiss. It’s made things awkward on more than one occasion.
I don’t know how well my shitty handshake reflects on my personality. Depending on the situation and/or how I feel on any given day, I can be passive or assertive, extroverted or introverted, confident or anxious. Some days I feel more masculine or feminine. I’m quite proud that every day I discover a new facet of my personality and abilities. To boil it all down to the impression one makes during a sweaty hand tug of war seems ridiculous. To assume that anyone’s handshake reflects fully their personality and worth to others is equally ludicrous.
My ultimate frustration though is the values and traits we continue to deem preferable, and attaching them to a style and strength of a handshake. It seems that in order to win the handshake game and consequently succeed in public life, we have to adopt certain traits and adapt to certain expectations. But where’s the evidence that only one type of personality can reach or contribute to success? Why do we continue to perceive extroversion, confidence, competitiveness, and strength as the only desirable personality markers? Has not enough happened, even in the last year, to once and for all confirm that these markers do not (necessarily) equal good leadership, sound decision making skills, sportsmanship, or innovative ideas? If we return to the handshake analyses, can we not confirm that a handshake is ultimately an atrocious, ineffective, hopelessly unreliable way of determining anything of substance about a person?
For my part I’ve no desire to adapt my character, my body, or my hand strength to antiquated patriarchal notions of what makes a person good for business, partnerships, and the like. Nor do I wish to perpetuate the idea that only traditionally masculine traits are desirable in public life. I avoid handshakes like a champ, but as I press ‘send’ on job applications and await job interviews, I unfortunately know that the day is near when avoidance may not be possible. I just hope, at the very least, that plenty of hand sanitizer and bell hooks’s books will be passed around to compensate.